There are mountains of free educational resources out there for anyone to use for their own development via OER Commons, Wikiversity, OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, Academic Earth etc. Free and open higher education is now available from the fledgling University of the People and Peer 2 Peer University though in a very limited form so far. This seems to threaten the academic mainstream but can the established universities actually benefit from adapting to the wave of openness?
Several universities are now experimenting with a concept which only recently would have been considered sheer madness; letting students participate in courses for free. An article in Ars Technica, University finds free online classes don't hurt enrollment, reports on a study carried out by Brigham Young University indicating that their free courses actually help to recruit new students. BYU (BYU Independent Study) offer a limited selection of online courses free in the hope that having tried them students would be tempted to sign up for the "real thing". This seems to hold true and even if many free students never become paying customers the general feeling seems to be that the university gains so much positive publicity by opening up their material that the scheme pays its way.
According to David Wiley of BYU (in an article in Wired Campus) the study was:
"the first piece of empirical work I am aware of that demonstrates clearly that a distance-learning program can simultaneously (1) provide a significant public good by publishing open courseware and (2) be revenue positive while doing it."
Universities openly publishing their course material and lectures also see a massive surge in interest from all over the world as Open University and MIT clearly show. Millions of people now regularly view free lectures and whole courses from top universities via iTunes U or universities' own YouTube channels and reputation for good content travels fast. Although American universities have been highly prominent on this front it's not simply a western phenomenon; see, for example, the Virtual University of Pakistan's YouTube channel.
It seems that maybe you can have your cake and eat it. By putting material on the net you contribute greatly to informal learning all over the world, helping to build your reputation for quality. But those in search of qualifications and the guidance of the university's teachers will still be willing to sign up for the full university experience. The one does not necessarily threaten the other.