Tony Hirst sent me this story from TechCrunch about Grockit securing venture capital to develop a 'Massive multiplayer online learning' system. The idea is that people learn best from each other and the system will use network effects to facilitate education. It's not actually true that people learn best from each all the time by the way, you don't necessarily learn quantum physics by hanging around with your mates down the pub (although you can get as far as Brownian motion by observing your pint) - sometimes experts, (whisper it) teachers are useful.
But putting aside their over-simplistic pedagogic spin, there is as I and others have been noting, something in the ability of social networking to engage users and create informal learning opportunities. What the Grockit story does indicate is that it may be commercial companies who learn how to harness this potential quicker and better than higher education institutions, with their glacial timescales and conservative approach. If Grockit don't succeed then someone else will.
In 2002 in my (now quaintly historic) book Delivering learning on the Net, I looked at the function of a campus degree. One of the functions it provides is the life experience, the good times which are a significant part of many people's lives. This should not be underestimated. I would guess it already constitutes a large part of the reason students go to university in the first place. We like to kid ourselves that continuing their education is the primary driver, but I think it's more a case of 'I went for the parties and some learning broke out.'
If (and it is by no means a small if), people can gain their education via other means, then would this social factor be a sufficient reason to still go to university. After all, you could have a similar rites of passage experience travelling round the world for a year. The key to this migration away from universities would be accreditation, or standardised recognition, of the learning that occurs via these other routes. If employers find a means of recognising this, then the higher education business model looks less attractive.
I appreciate the death of universities (or more modestly, the death of the lecture) has been foretold many times, and the reaction of many is a raise of the eyebrows, but if we value them as institutions, then it is worth taking seriously. Higher education is the last great complacent sector in the face of the massive changes that the internet has wrought - look at what has happened in health, retail, media, politics even and the changes made by HE look relatively minor. And yet, with the possible exception of broadcast media and newspapers, the internet goes to the heart of our sector more than any other. The net is about content, community and communication - these are the core components in the educational experience, surely, and yet bar some tinkering at the edges education is largely unaffected by the massive socio-technical changes we are seeing.