Posted by: Tony Carson | 28 October, 2007

iTunes U — are the canned lectures a benefit to the students … or to the professors?

In his article YouTube U. Andy Kessler suggests it’s the professors. Some highlights:

Without much fanfare, college lectures are being put online, for free. MIT lectures can be downloaded from iTunes University, and you can watch Cal professors pontificate on your computer via YouTube. Is this some new trend? Do colleges feel threatened by Wikipedia? Something funny is going on. No one gives anything away for free without some ulterior motive.

I mean, don’t they know college is big business? Right now, 17 million students are involved in higher education, some higher than others. As a business, college is growing faster than sales of multicolored Crocs. Since 1980, the population of students under 25 has grown 40 percent–and for those over 25, it’s up even more at 52 percent. Is this what your neighbors are doing during the day? Could be. Even better (for colleges, anyway), since 2002 tuition has jumped 35 percent in real terms (that’s adjusted for inflation, for you French-lit majors). And while financial aid is available, there is some $85 billion in student loans outstanding. Who is going to break the news to these kids that they could have bought a Mustang and watched that physics class for free on their laptop between shifts at Dunkin Donuts (which isn’t even spelt right)?

Has anyone thought through this whole free lectures thing? If they give this stuff away on the Internet, doesn’t that completely change the economics and bring the faux-Greek revival columns holding up lecture halls crashing down onto quads/Frisbee football fields across America?

But something funky is going on. Let’s test your recall of the transitive property. Lectures are free, college requires lectures, therefore college is worthless. Makes sense. But of course, college isn’t worthless, not if you ever want to get a job. The lectures may have no value, but the sheepskin and transcripts certainly do–$200K please.

There are deeper forces swirling through the bow-tie crowd. I put on my conspiracy theory tinfoil hat and it finally hit me: Today’s professors are academics first and teachers a distant second. The best of them boast that they only have to teach one course each semester, as opposed to the two or three that young pups must endure before they are tenured.

In other words, this would be a great job if it weren’t for the students. Research, a team of graduate students as underpaid serfs, papers in academic journals, a few talks at esoteric conferences–these are the paths to success in the academic world. Oh, and some well-paid consulting gigs on the side. Creating a video catalog of lectures and putting them up online–it’s a brilliant move, don’t you see? That way, pretty soon, you won’t even have to show up Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 P.M. at Olin Hall Lecture Room 102. Just set up a projector and play the video. Better yet, just have the kids download it into their iPods. Update the lecture every decade or so whether you need to or not. This is the new face of higher education–tenured professors doing research who don’t have to bother teaching courses ever again. And with email to replace office hours, you won’t need any kind of personal contact at all with undergrads.

Think of the possibilities. There are physical limitations on how many kids can fit on campuses today. Arizona State is up to 50,000 undergrads while Harvard is stuck at 6,700. But digital real estate is infinite. Watch our courses at home. Take a sophomore year equivalency test and get 34 percent off your tuition at Amazon: For the low, low price of $30,000, you can tell friends–and employers–that you graduated from a small school in Cambridge. Brilliant. And it would work too, except for one thing. Parents have plans for that soon-to-be spare bedroom. Oh well, nice try.

Andy Kessler’s most recent book is The End of Medicine: How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor.



  1. Look at what the admin is thinking.

    If you can get your tenured faculty to give taped lectures, then you can fire all your adjuncts and sessionals and your junior faculty. Once the tenured faculty retire, they’ll no longer be able to renew taped lectures (as they probably will need to be periodically, but not very frequently). But, then you can hire a few adjuncts on a short-term basis and drop them once the lectures are updated.

    Considering that administrators are more than willing to replace full-time, well-paid faculty jobs with part-time, poorly-paid ones, this is probably uncomfortably close to the truth.

  2. […] Podcasts – A few weeks ago Tony posted about the recent trend of uploading University lectures onto the internet.  His point was that professors are usually more interested in the research side of things — […]

  3. […] Podcasts – Breaking down Classes A few weeks ago Tony posted about the recent trend of uploading University lectures onto the internet.  His point was that professors are usually more interested in the research side of things — […]

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