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An Open Letter to Google: Google University on YouTube

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Dear Google,

I am the Director of the Philosophy Program at a one of the many little colleges recently retro-fitted to become a university in Western Pennsylvania. After 18 years of steadily teaching at a reputable little college, with the magic of our new university stature I suddenly found myself applying for, and receiving, tenure. My job and income are now secure. Gee, what an improvement for student-learning outcomes. So let me put my new tenure to use and see if it works.

It is clear to me that post-secondary (College and University) undergraduate education both costs too much and the general quality is far from as good as it should be in light of the extortionate price students and their parents are forced to pay. According to the Pew Foundation funded American Institutes for Research 2006 study, “The National Survey of America’s College Students,” one half of four-year college graduates will not be able to articulate what I have so far written, much less grasp the basic argument of any article written in the Chronicle of Higher Education or, for that matter, any speech critical of post-secondary education delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings herself. This means the majority of American college graduates are unable to figure out exactly how they, and their families, may have been gouged by their Alma Maters.

According to the Study:

• More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.

• Students in 2- and 4-year colleges have the greatest difficulty with quantitative literacy: approximately 30 percent of students in 2-year institutions and nearly 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have only Basic quantitative literacy. Basic skills are those necessary to compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu.

If this study is accurate, and anecdotal evidence of graduating seniors certainly suggests it is, there is no just reason for any student to pay $100,000 (more than the cost of most homes in Western PA) for a four-year degree. Most disturbing, however, is the implication when looking at the power of compound interest: If the $100,000 spent on college were invested in a mutual fund instead, it would be worth vastly more than the $1million dollar increase in lifetime earning power a college education is alleged to be worth. If the money spent on a college education were invested in TIAA-CREF, where university employees invest their own retirement funds, by the time the student reached the age of retirement in 40 years that $100,000, at 10% per year, would be worth $4,525,925.56 — in 50 years $11,739,085.29. Instead, what now happens is parents simply lose a hefty portion of their own retirement while footing the bill for their kids’ vastly over-priced college degrees. In a word, despite college propaganda to the contrary, at current rates, a four year degree at a typical college or university dramatically decreases a family’s overall lifetime wealth rather than increasing it.

Consequently, it makes sense that for-profit institutions like Google, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles or even Starbucks, begin to consider applying for university accreditation, and offering degrees of their own. Clearly, well-run for-profits are vastly more economically efficient than any non-profit college or university. The efficiency is a consequence of following the basic economic principle that an informed consumer will always purchase the best value for the least money. I, like most parents, would happily send my children to Google University if I knew they would learn more there than at a higher priced university. And unlike non-profits where there is little incentive to quantify results for comparison shopping, profit-making institutions thrive on promoting their quantifiable successes. The best are quick to demonstrate why they are the best and thereby sell more.

So, Google is ideally positioned to dominate the post-secondary education market, and do it without hiring a single tenured professor. Though once tenure protected the academic freedom of innovative faculty, tenure now only ensures the homogeneity of thought of those tenured. Tenure has itself now become an impediment to the novel ideas it was originally designed to protect. Google could escape the tenure trap by not hiring any faculty at all. Instead of hiring the faculty themselves, institutions like Google could simply purchase a vast library of taped, high quality, lectures given by academic super stars or other top performing teachers who are willing to sell series of their lectures (perhaps even receiving residuals if they really rock!). These professors would operate as free agents in a digital world of Professors Without Borders. As Jeffrey Toobin reports in New Yorker Magazine, Google has already started the process of digitizing all books published, and certainly that would include all filmed academic lectures.

As a consequence, I would like to develop a trial philosophy class that will be offered on YouTube — perhaps start with Philosophy and Theater or Introduction to Philosophy. My long term goal, however, is to develop, for lack of a better term, a Google University on YouTube Philosophy Major. My students at the brick and mortar university campus where I teach would be required to watch the lectures on YouTube and then submit papers in class. But all the class material would be available to the entire YouTube audience, and any institution that might want to use this class as part of their own curriculum would be free to. Yes, a free college class on YouTube, that’s my initial plan.

If successful, perhaps other free-agent professors will follow, and once a sufficient number of competently taught, enjoyable, entertaining, college courses are provided for free, this could begin to break the de facto price fixing of the American post-secondary education cartel in league with their accrediting institutions. With the aid of Margaret Spellings, this college cartel has finally become vulnerable to the demands of the market place. Parents may soon finally compare educational products based on quantifiable outcomes, and buy a degree based on highest quality for lowest price. Google can easily deliver what the non-profits have so far refused to: the best education at the best price. Institutions, without the requisite faculty, like Google, Amazon or any various libraries and book stores, certainly could easily provide competently taught, college credit quality, courses on platforms like YouTube.

Google’s purchase of YouTube, combined with the demands of out-priced parents and the pressure of the US Department of Education that post-secondary education finally provide quantifiable results, all coming together within in the last six months, shouts loud that the time for Professors Without Borders has arrived. I know for a fact that there are many many highly educated, highly competent, PhD, University and College faculty willing to work as free-agent professors for advanced education. I also know by hiring free-agent professors, Google would be capable of offering vastly more enjoyable, higher quality and less expensive college degrees than are currently available at other colleges and universities existing on line or in brick and mortar. With large enough numbers of students and high enough quality of professors’ lectures and the stellar name of Google to kick this off, the era of the ten dollar, accredited, 3-credit, college class is here. This after all is the real payoff of the computer age. Over a few tens of years those rare monster computers have now been reduced to a wallet-sized commonplace, the same should be so for the four-year degree, and Google can do it, Google should do it: a Harvard-quality undergraduate education on an iPod, while sipping espresso.

It is entirely conceivable that libraries, book stores and coffee houses could offer degrees of their own using the lectures purchased and digitized by Google. Grading could easily be out-sourced inexpensively, done by professional graders in Bangalore or Beijing. After all, as Thomas Friedman made clear, the world really is flatter than we like to imagine. (Where do you think H&R Block sends overflow tax forms, Kansas? Not really.) Outsourcing grading to third party graders in Asia, would have the additional benefit of helping to eliminate grade inflation, since graders would have no professional incentive to please students with padded grades in order to keep their jobs.

"Google University on YouTube at Starbucks in Barnes and Nobles," would not only reduce the cost of education to students, the competition between professors to produce the best lectures would create vastly superior lectures, and the competition between for-profit institutions in order to attract students would produce vastly better outcomes for students, and therefore would even help American corporations, like Google itself, who need highly competent employees.

Please call me or write me or email me if you would like to discuss this further, or if you think I might be of help. If I keep writing things like this, the tenure thing may not really be as bullet proof as I am hoping; so I may soon REALLY need that job.

Sincerely Yours,

James D. Carmine, PhD
(Free Agent Philosophy Professor; Professor Without Borders)
Associate Professor of Philosophy

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About carmine

  • Outsourcing the grading to Asia? Yikes! That might be fine for a math or physics class where there are right and wrong answers, and some hack could just check students’ assignments against an answer sheet. But one of the advantages of taking a class from a professor instead of watching lectures on YouTube is that you get feedback on your papers from someone who knows you and desires to coach you to become better at what you’re learning. Grading papers is one way of doing that. Granted, not all professors are that great at reading and marking up papers — most don’t have time to do a really thorough job of it. But that is something I’ve treasured from some of my best professors which I wouldn’t give up for all the convenience in the world.

    Being able to ask questions and get more personal instruction during office hours is another thing that would be lost with YouTube courses.

  • I’d sign up at Google U, the first truly global university. I could attend tutorials with Google Talk and collaborate on assessments with other students on Docs and Spreadsheets – students from all around the world! And the people you meet and work with will actually want to be there!

    Second life might work – but why set it up as a classroom? Why not use the flexible reality to demonstrate the issues you’re learning about? There are already islands where people are demonstrating what it’s like to have paranoid schizophrenia, how useful to people learning about psychology?! You could teach maths in worlds whose physics correspond to the type of math!

    I want in!

  • I regards to what you wrote. It trully will come to that in the near future and google will be on the forfront of it all.

  • Daganev

    Second life is evil, overrated, and much to hyped up.

    There is only one industry that is working in Second life, and its not exactly pg-13.

    But I’m still waiting for the YouTube videos.

  • Sean McDuffee

    Going back to the Second Life idea. You could build virtual rooms with tables, chairs, whitebords, everything. You would actually control a person that could walk around and interact with everything in the room. Sound could be worked in so that people talking to each other 10 feet away sound like 10 feet away. You see an open chair, sit down, and start talking and working with each other right there, like a real recitation/study session. There could be public places organized by the site and users/students could create their own. People with the proper material background could TA these rooms. Personally though I think that grading and a system to promote academic honesty are necessary for any accreditation of such an online world.


  • Joe

    You are making the common mistake of assuming that Universities are in the business of education when, in fact, they are in the business of accreditation.

  • I hope to see this happen very much. Universities in general are far behind than they ought to be. A universal, cheap and open university backed by a profitable business model will certainly bring some progress to the area.

  • If someone really starts a university like that, I’m ready to do my under-grad in engineering all over again

  • Julian Morrison

    Second Life or similar “massively multi-player” virtual world may be a good forum for tutorials.

  • College Student

    If the lectures were accompanied by some sort of support system like a message board where people could ask questions and get timely answers that would probably work.. Many college students find spouses in college that would change the entire game..

  • Jon


    Although it may result in some structural unemployment, this is no serious deterrent. This is a fundamental truth of capitalism. If one can not produce something as efficiently as another we don’t keep the less efficient producer employed out of sympathy. If you must, it is actually cheaper to go with the more efficient method and subsidize the less efficient producer (laid off professors) until they find a job they can perform better at.


    As far as the idea goes, I think it is great except that there is something more to education than listening to lectures : I learned a great deal by interacting with other students on campus. I have often thought something along these lines to subsidize class room learning would be awesome, but to replace classroom learning altogether seems a bit extreme. I don’t think for a minute I could have learned the same by visiting OpenCourseWare…

    Maybe the idea can be extended in some way to account for this very serious limitation…


  • Alan

    Hello Doc. As one who missed the education boat many years ago, I have been doing just as you suggest since discovering the internet. What I have learned over the past few years has been amazing. If Google had been around when I graduated high school in 1980, I think I would have been a Physicist instead of a truck driver. If you ever need a subject to test your idea on, I would gladly volunteer…………..Alan

  • Brilliant idea! I hope you can make it happen.

  • Daganev

    This looks very nice. New ideas always cause some people to lose jobs, don’t think that should be an issue. HOWEVER… I searched YouTube and can’t find any of your videos… where are they? Where is a sampler?

  • Sean

    check out MIT opencourseware as well as Connexions.
    These are some existing projects you can look to and i am prety sure you can contribute to Conexions yourself if so inclined