The 'UnCollege': are walled campuses obsolete?

Today's colleges and universities: another industry disrupted by the Internet?

Thanks to technology, learning is taking on a whole new meaning. And that means much more than sitting at a desk in a classroom with four walls several times a week. But can virtual or social network communities replace face-to-face learning experiences?

School's out forever? Another industry disrupted by the Internet. Credit: CBS

A new report in The Chronicle of Higher Education speculates that such traditional classrooms are going the way of the horse and buggy -- or for a more fitting analogy, chalk and blackboards.

Randy Bass, executive director of Georgetown University's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, is quoted as laying out the new course for online campuses during the annual meeting of the Educause Learning Initiative:

"Why even have a traditional college course? Learning outside of this structure engages students more deeply, recent data indicate. Professors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten. In an era when students can easily grab material online, including lectures by gifted speakers in every field, a learning environment that avoids courses completely—or seriously reshapes them—might produce a very effective new form of college."

The seeming irrelevancy of four-walled classrooms is not lost on students, who come from a generation raised on the Internet. The Chronicle cites the efforts of Dale Stephens, a 19-year-old freshman at Hendrix College, who is leaving his school to found the "UnCollege," a social network of students and professors. "The group members will trade tips on how to learn enough to get the jobs they're aiming for, with the aid of several mentors. Some mentors are professors at Hendrix, but some come from other colleges." Participants will be charged $100 a month for access to the Website and mentor network.

There's been a strong trend within education toward the Internet, as reported previously here at SmartPlanet. We see entrepreneurial visionary projects such as Salman Khan's Khan Academy, a bevy of online courses, ranging from mathematics to physics to finance, to anyone looking to expand their knowledge -- without mortgaging their homes to pay tuition costs. Then there's ALISON, a free interactive online learning website and social enterprise, founded by Mike Feerick, that provides free online learning via interactive multimedia for basic and essential workplace and life skills.

There is a creative destruction disrupting the educational process in many ways, from online learning opportunities to new forms of education providers. For example, there are courses from online education provider StraighterLine which offers online courses in subjects such as accounting, statistics, and math -- for a flat rate of $99 a month, plus $39 for each course started.

Institutions such as MIT and Carnegie-Mellon are offering limited online forms of their courses via online videos and presentations, free to anyone.

The Web is opening up disruptive new possibilities for making education available at affordable rates to anyone that desires to pursue it. In a hyper-competitive global economy, we need all the educational innovation we can muster. Can virtual or social network communities replace the face-to-face learning experience?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com