In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.

– Clay Shirky, Napster, Udacity and the Academy

Digitization and distribution via the internet is a great unbundler, disrupting every industry it touches. A great unbundling is coming to education and will overtake it’s institutions, altering them forever, just as it did to the music industry. It may not happen as rapidly as it did to the record labels, academic institutions are much older, but it will happen. As long as a four-year education sets students back $250,000 and saddles them with a crippling, non-forgivable loan that leaves them no better off than an indentured servent of old, the alternatives will continue to chip away at the established institutions such as private universities.

Just as MP3s and Napster were originally dismissed by the labels as poor quality alternatives to records and CDs, the tidal wave of enhancements to the production and distribution of digital music improved the ecosystem to where we have iTunes and Spotify as serious alternatives to the traditional methods of how to acquire and consume music.

The same will happen to education. The core nugget of a university class, the lecture, is online(Kahn Academy, iTunes U, Udacity). Tests can be taken online. Class discussions are taking place over email, on wikis, in forums. Bit by bit, the elements of a formal education are being replaced with lower cost, asynchronous alternatives. It’s the Napsterization of Education.

Over 200,000 have enrolled in Introduction to Computer Science on Udacity. There is a course on how to build a start-up taught by Steve Blank. Everything on Udacity is completely free, shared, re-shared, and improved as each student makes their way through the courses. It’s not just introductory stuff either, check out CS373 on Udacity where a Sebastian Thrun, a Google VP & Fellow, will teach you all you need to know to program a self-driving car.

Exciting times!