Welcome to the future of higher education, where students can receive Ivy League instruction at community college prices and choose from an online menu of courses taught by famous professors as easily as they might select individual songs from iTunes. That means logging in anytime from a tablet or laptop to watch polished video presentations, check out assigned online readings, and chat with classmates anywhere in the world.
Testing for the education model of what is called The Floating University has already kicked off. Hundreds of students at Yale University, Harvard University and Bard College have swarmed the limited spaces available for the first undergraduate survey course, called "Big Ideas" — a sampler plate for students trying to figure out their majors. Floating University's founders plan to eventually license many courses to a much broader array of universities and colleges across the country.
Any member of the public can jump into the first 12-week course for $495 and get everything except college credit. "Big Ideas" runs from September through November and includes 12 video lectures by leading experts, as well as reading assignments, review questions and online discussions.
"You could get Ivy League lectures no matter wherever you go to school," said Diane Murphy, a communications consultant for Floating University. "The cost point is 10 times lower than what you'd ever get for attending a top-level university."
"Big Ideas" enrollees get to check out language's window into the brain with Steven Pinker, a Harvard evolutionary psychologist. They explore physics with Michio Kaku, co-founder of string field theory. And they consider the evolution of education and ideas with Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard president and economic adviser to the Obama administration.
But Floating University students don't have to drag themselves out of bed or race across a campus to do so. Instead, they go online whenever they want, and they get to watch engaging video lectures in which professors stand in a white, "Matrix"-style space accompanied by moving graphics, video clips and well-timed sound effects. Such videos let students rewind and absorb information at their leisure.
"If you're a student," Murphy said, "it's like, 'Okay, am I going to watch 'Avatar' or read a book ?' It's much more engaging to watch the multimedia."
Floating University's multimedia presentation and active engagement help set it apart from other efforts such as MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative, which makes all educational materials from MIT undergraduate and graduate courses partially free online.
"The other initiatives are letting you peek through the hole of the doors of classes you couldn't get into," Murphy explained. "This allows you to participate."
Floating University doesn't aim to become the next University of Phoenix, an accredited institution that offers online education. Instead its founders see it as an iTunes Store for education. Students of participating colleges can add to their credit totals by taking Floating University courses.
The Floating University model probably won't shove aside traditional universities, and it won't necessarily replicate the network of friends and acquaintances that is built up at elite institutions. But it could shake up the proverbial Ivory Tower by transforming top professors into freelancers whose expertise and gifts for teaching aren't constrained by time or space.
"You can still go to Harvard; it's not going to replace that system," Murphy said "But there are an awful lot of people who work or go to community college that can still go to The Floating University for very little money."
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