Monika and I were talking a bit today about what the changes in the educational system will mean to future generations. What happens when classes from Stanford, MIT, Harvard and other top tier universities are available for anyone to take. Suddenly admissions to the university changes completely. In a sense, everyone who wants to try is admitted, just by signing up for a class. The value then is in the degree. There may be a future world where students just take classes as they see fit. Then eventually they bring their transcript and a large check to the dean and say, "I'd like a degree please." Only then would the university actually scrutinize the student's accomplishments, take their money, and grant them a degree. Under this model, you can take all the courses you want, but ultimately, to get the degree, you have to write that $200k check to get your Stanford degree. It reminds me of a conversation a colleague had with his professor at a high end university about degrees. He asked, "why is it that you let so many kids go through several years of work only to let them fail out at the end? Why not just give them the degree?" The professor responded, "Each degree that we give out just cheapens all the ones we've already given." That professor clearly sees the degree as the scarce, and thus valuable, resource.
Interestingly, the folks at TechCrunch started thinking along the same lines, but instead saw a parallel to how the music industry has changed in the last few years. They think that the current degree-based educational system is analogous to albums in the music industry. iTunes has been a major force in changing the music industry (for better or worse) toward a pay-by-the-song economy. You can read about their ideas for jailbreaking the degree here.