Carnegie's materials have already changed how Logan Stark's professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn't lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.The idea has merit, but there are certainly some big problems to overcome. If the courseware project is run and funded by the government, it may be open, but it surely won't be cheap. How, then do the course materials get updated? This isn't too big of a problem with, say, Euclidean Geometry, but for something like Finance, I imagine the books get re-written all the time. The article supposes that this might continue to be funded by the government, but this doesn't sound like a wonderful idea to me. It would be far better, methinks, if a culture evolved similar to the open source software movement. Rather than a set of "perfect" open courses designed and maintained centrally, a whole ecology of work collocated in some natural place--analogous to sourceforge.net--could grow and evolve, tagged with comments and other metadata. This depends on willing practitioners doing all the work. Faculty members taking the time to update old materials, probably. It seems unlikely on the face of it, but somehow it works for software. It works for Wikipedia.
A really interesting question is how course assessment ties into the courseware. Would it be developed and delivered in parallel, integrated with the materials? Or will assessment remain a second-thought tack-on for another decade? But if it is to be integrated, then the learning objectives need to be clear. There seems to be an opportunity for the assessment profession to get involved with this train before it leaves the station. Polish up your resume.
In a recent report I asked for, a group of twenty-plus institutions like ours had an average total expenditure on instruction-related items of 37% of total budget. We might suppose then that the asymptotic limit for reducing administration (assuming that all academic support is free somehow, libraries and such) is a 63% reduction in the cost of delivering programs. The cost of instruction could be reduced too, if the low-complexity components are off-loaded to technology. Moreover, competition in the fluid digital domain would tend to force prices down. I don't think it's unrealistic to estimate that a bachelor's degree could be delivered for about 25% of what it costs at a traditional college now.
Marshal Smith, senior counselor to the Secretary of Education seems to be the the guiding light behind this open ed plan. You can read his ideas if you have a subscription to Science in his article "Opening Education." You can also browse MIT's version of open courseware here.