The New York Times this morning has an interesting overview of the open courseware movement that’s rapidly expanding at the college level around the world. What one speaker at a recent conference on the topic termed investing in “clicks instead of bricks”.

MIT and Stanford have been pioneers in making many of their undergraduate courses available to anyone who wants to participate, without the cost but also missing the credentials. But they’re not alone anymore with, according to another conference participant, more than 21,000 courses from universities on six continents now available and more being added every week.

Despite courses being free to the student, someone must see a business model here. Recently two companies have been spun off from Stanford’s open online courses and one of them just raised $16 million in venture capital.

I’m not sure I completely buy the claim of a representative from one open university who says “you don’t need a teacher for learning”. Some people do, and it often depends on the complexity of subject matter, like medicine or engineering.

However, for many general learning and introductory courses that fill the schedules of many undergraduates, courses offered online and providing a self-paced approach is an option that needs to be available to students.

And a similar approach could work for many, if not most, high school courses. Certainly not for all students, just like independent learning isn’t right for all those in college, or all adults for that matter. But maybe we need to offer kids the choice to opt out of live versions of required courses, especially those that are not part of their spheres of interest.

Anyway, with the rapid growth and acceptance of college level open courses, a though comes to mind.

I wonder when we reach the point where the learning a person gains from participation in a class becomes more important than the credentials awarded for attending in person.