Last year I wrote about a new initiative in open education called Peer 2 Peer University (see Peer Learning). The idea is to combine freely available educational resources, collaborative learning, study guidance from volunteer tutors and assemble short university courses free of charge. Now P2PU are accepting enrollment on their first seven courses, starting on 9 September.
At present there is no accreditation so anyone taking one of these first courses will only receive certificates of performance from P2PU. That is the main obstacle the fledgling university has to address in the near future and they can count on strong resistance. One suggested course of action is to show your course material and assignments at a "regular" university and ask them to validate your performance. It will be very interesting to hear what happens when someone takes such action.
The experiment will hopefully be closely studied since it offers a radical new angle to the whole concept of education. The "free" aspect will of course attract interest but it is essential that the students are already well-versed in the principles of collaborative net-based education. Those who expect to be taught in a traditional way may well be disappointed. On the web site they do hint that small fees may well be introduced on future courses since running university courses does indeed cost money and you can only do so much with volunteer tutors. The key element to education like this is the role of the teacher/tutor and their ability to offer students a context for their studies and qualified feedback (even if much of the interaction is between students). Good tutors will not work long as unpaid volunteers. Their regular job will always have top priority.
I'm not sure if P2PU has a long term future as a university but since mainstream universities are reluctant to really experiment with new models this is one way of testing ideas and assessing what works and does not work. The lessons learned by P2PU and other similar projects will hopefully inspire established institutions to try new ways of reaching out to learners who are at present outside mainstream higher education.
For further variations on the theme of "free" in education have a look at Seth Godin's blogpost Education at the Crossroads.
Update 27 August: 227 people applied for the 7 P2PU courses this term. A manageable number for to get started with.