What kind of laptop should students buy?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “What kind of laptop should students buy?” was written by Harry Slater, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th August 2013 09.09 UTC

Topping the list of university essentials is a lightweight, well-equipped and robust laptop.

It should be portable enough to be easily carried from halls to lecture theatres to the library. It needs to boast the hardware and software for essay writing, note-taking and every form of procrastination in between. And ideally, it will last the length of your course.

The space-saving, lightweight champion is the netbook. An affordable choice, they’re ideal for lecture to library use. A good looking model with adequate Ram and hard drive space (4GB and 400GB respectively should cut it) can be picked up for £300-£350.

However, the netbook’s flagship portability costs it ease of use. Most only stretch to an 11″ screen, meaning long periods of use can be uncomfortable. If you have large, or even normal-sized hands, the small keyboard becomes a cramped and frustrating nuisance.

A larger screen would solve the problem, but this would undermine weight and portability – and that’s not advisable. Consider buying a netbook for when you’re on campus and a laptop for when you’re in halls – if you can afford it.

The more versatile option is to stick with the netbook and pair it with an external monitor, such as a £130 TV. Connect the two with an HDMI cable (don’t pay more than a fiver) and pick up a full-sized keyboard and mouse for under £15. The eye strain and cramp issues are no more, you have a decent telly, and the netbook’s portability can be reclaimed by unplugging a single cable.

If you’re studying design or any degree that involves more than typing and table filling, equip your kit with a beefy sound or graphics card. Additional Ram is a good idea but if you know you’re going to be putting your gear through heavy use, a speedier processor should be your first point of call.

Whatever you buy, register it with Immobilise. Logging your kit with the free service provides you with a way of proving ownership should your possessions be stolen and subsequently recovered. The local police service are often on campus during Freshers’ Week offering the opportunity to sign up, as well as offering general theft prevention advice.

Protect your laptop with anti-virus and internet security software, too. It’s very common, obvious advice – and viruses seem a thing of the past, but nothing makes you feel helpless like an infection.

Big name broadband providers offer this kind of software free when you sign up. Before you leave for university, find out if you can get this protection through the account holder for your home address. If not, it’s roughly £40 for total protection.

Be sure to get anti-virus and internet security software – they are often packaged separately, but can be bought as an all-in-one product. Make regular back-ups as well.

Finally, you’ll be needing some software to work on. The student edition of Microsoft Office includes everything most students need (Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote), and will set you back £109.99. iWork from Apple has much the same functionality but for a fraction of the price (£42 for Pages, Keynote and Numbers – its documents are compatible with Windows, too).

If you require specialist software, such as a voice recognition programme, look into the Disabled Students’ Allowances as you may be able to get a financial contribute to the cost.

• This article was amended on 15 August 2013. It previously stated that iWork is available on Windows.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Why Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is a movie classic


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Why Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is a movie classic” was written by Priya Elan, for The Guardian on Tuesday 29th January 2013 11.28 UTC

Tina Fey may be planning a timely return to her 2004 film Mean Girls with a musical adaptation. “I’m trying to develop it with my husband, who does all the music for 30 Rock. And I think Paramount’s on board,” she said at the Screen Actors Guild awards on Sunday. Timely because nine years after its release the film remains a by-word for pop-culture savviness. In recent months it has been referenced by everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Barack Obama (his official Tumblr features a gif from the film in which Lindsay Lohan mentions “October 3rd”, to notify followers of the date for a presidential debate). So what accounts for its longevity?

The plot is simple. Previously home-schooled 16-year-old Cady Heron (Lohan) attends high school for the first time. She falls in with a Heathers-like gang, called the Plastics, who tutor her in the bitchy mores of the teen clique. But Cady has a plan of her own …

For the high-school genre, Fey’s hilarious script was unusually astute and provocative. Replicating teen doublespeak with brilliant authenticity, the dialogue was full of zingers, accounting for its continued life online. Not only has it spawned a huge number of memes and gifs, phrases like “fetch” and “word vomit” have fallen into common parlance. Its cyber-life has afforded the film a special cachet. Which is why when Mariah Carey asked Nicki Minaj to name all the film’s characters on American Idol a few weeks ago, Carey was subtly questioning Minaj’s own authenticity. It was a pointed exchange that would have made the film’s own queen bee, Regina George, proud. Only last week Amanda Seyfried, in the news for Les Mis, said that Mean Girls was her “best work”.

Fey gave us some real moments of societal commentary in the film too. Subjects such as the early sexualisation of children (Regina’s little sister grinding along to Kelis’ Milkshake on the TV) and body dysmorphia (the ritualistic cries of “man shoulders” as the girls examine themselves in the mirror) were tackled with wit. One key plot device, the Burn Book – a scrapbook that features a photo of a person you hate with a single-line diss (“Grotsky little byotch” and “made out with a hotdog”) – today looks like the precursor of internet trolling and cyberbullying.

The main theme, though, was girl-on-girl crime, from passive-aggressive takedowns to real physical violence. This battle for “social acceptance by any means necessary” is something that continues to be played out in real life, and duplicated in shows like Gossip Girl and The Real Housewives in the US.

Mean Girls continues to be relevant and, to misquote the film, is more grool than ever.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Could the free university movement be the great new hope for education?” was written by Harriet Swain, for The Guardian on Monday 28th January 2013 19.30 UTC

The smell of warm herbs and sound of clattering plates waft in from the next-door room, where a vegan lunch for 70 is being cleared away, and where from time to time a toddler loses balance and thumps against the door.

But, bent over pieces of scrap paper, students at the Thursday afternoon script-writing course in the Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project are concentrating hard on today’s assignment.

There are two of them – Richard Ince, 72, and Ben Woodling, 38 – and they have been meeting their tutor, Niall Drennan, a performance writer and former probation officer, for two hours every other week since early summer, although no one can remember exactly when. Tutoring them in the alternate weeks is Alison Fisher, a former scriptwriter for EastEnders. Others have attended from time to time – they recall a Spanish group under the impression it was about improving English language skills, and a French woman who was living in a tent and writing a novel – but Ince and Woodling are the regulars.

“I’ve always been a great reader and like words,” says Ince, who first came to the centre eight years ago to volunteer after retiring from his job as an administrator with IBM. “At my age I haven’t the drive to do something with it, but it’s something I’m interested in.” Woodling, who studied geography at Hull University more than 10 years ago, says he likes learning, but being on incapacity benefit meant he couldn’t afford adult education. He has done a music course at the centre and then drama, “which was very challenging for my mental health issue s and shyness”, and he just happened to be around when the scriptwriting course started. “It’s been interesting and fun and made me think about things, just by getting into the heads of characters,” he says. “So I’ve just kept coming.”

The scriptwriting course is one of dozens of free courses, workshops, lectures and discussions advertised by the new Free University Brighton, tagline “education for love not money”.

The “free university” is the brainchild of Ali Ghanimi, a Green party activist who has worked in the public sector managing organisational change The idea, she says, is to offer “something for the whole community, regardless of their financial means or previous education”.

Recent free learning opportunities advertised on the website range from a lecture at Sussex University by philosopher Simon Glendinning on “The end of history”, to a knitting group at Hove Library. It also has a wish list of subjects that people would like to learn more about, from introductory philosophy, to the Brighton sky at night, to furniture upholstery, with an appeal for potential tutors to come forward.

Many already have, and when the FUB officially launches in May, Ghanimi will put them in touch with their students in spaces offered, for free, by local libraries, community centres and cafes around Brighton. They also have the use of a caravan and 1950s Airstream trailer.

“It’s nice to do things in a group and learn and share skills and knowledge,” says Ghanimi. “But it’s also really important in the current economic climate.”

This year has seen rising interest in alternative university models, inspired not only by a difficult economy, but also by the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000 and by the success of Tent City University, which organised lectures, discussions and workshops with anti-capitalist protesters occupying the area around St Paul’s in London last winter.

Funding changes in higher education have been encouraging alternative ways of looking at learning for the past couple of years. The Social Science Centre in Lincoln, which welcomed its first nine students this term, was conceived by Mike Neary, dean of teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, in 2010, as a result of proposals to cut the teaching grant to arts, humanities and social science subjects. It charges no fees, but stude nts and teachers, who meet at locations around Lincoln, are able to pay one hour of their income a month through PayPal. At the end of three years of study, students are promised the equivalent of a higher education degree.

The Free University of Liverpool, which also operates from different locations around its city, offers courses delivered voluntarily by academics and others in culture. It was also a protest against the privatisation of higher education. A similar project, the Really Open University, was started around the same time in Leeds.

Just before Christmas, the movement even had its own first conference, Sustaining Alternative Universities, which took place in Oxford. Its organiser, Joel Lazarus, says: “A lot of people are motivated by the exclusion of more and more people from education, and particularly higher education opportunities. This is a response to the commodification of education and privatisation of university.”

Tim Huzar, a Phd student in philosophy at Brighton University, who has helped to set up the FUB, says the response is also practical. “It’s important to realise an alternative and demonstrate it,” he says. “But it isn’t just a political act. It’s a real service. It gives people access to education and it makes them realise that learning is something they should expect lifelong – not just something you do if you can afford £9,000 when you’re 18.”

Organisers of alternative models insist they do not want to threaten existing universities. Both Neary and Lazarus, who teaches international politics and international development at Oxford, Reading and London, point out that they continue to work within the system to change things, and many of those involved in these projects hope they will encourage more people to think of higher education as something potentially open to them.

The desire to make learning more accessible to those without the time or resources to attend a formal course is also prompting many traditional universities to put materials online, and has inspired other online projects, such as the tuition-free University of the People, founded in 2009. But Ghanimi argues these cannot replace the benefits of people meeting face-to-face in their local area and learning together. “It’s a way for people to share common interests and build relationships,” she says. “That’s about building stronger communities.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?” was written by Carole Cadwalladr, for The Observer on Sunday 11th November 2012 00.01 UTC

Two years ago, I sat in the back seat of a Toyota Prius in a rooftop car park in California and gripped the door handle as the car roared away from the kerb, headed straight towards the roof’s edge and then at the last second sped around a corner without slowing down. There was no one in the driver’s seat.

It was the prototype of Google’s self-driving car and it felt a bit like being Buck Rogers and catapulted into another century. Later, I listened to Sebastian Thrun, a German-born professor of artificial intelligence at Stanford University, explain how he’d built it, how it had already clocked up 200,000 miles driving around California, and how one day he believed it would mean that there would be no traffic accidents.

A few months later, the New York Times revealed that Thrun was the head of Google’s top-secret experimental laboratory Google X, and was developing, among other things, Google Glasses – augmented reality spectacles. And then, a few months after that, I came across Thrun again.

The self-driving car, the glasses, Google X, his prestigious university position – they’d all gone. He’d resigned his tenure from Stanford, and was working just a day a week at Google. He had a new project. Though he didn’t call it a project. “It’s my mission now,” he said. “This is the future. I’m absolutely convinced of it.”

The future that Thrun believes in, that has excited him more than self-driving cars, or sci-fi-style gadgets, is education. Specifically, massive online education free to all. The music industry, publishing, transportation, retail – they’ve all experienced the great technological disruption. Now, says Thrun, it’s education’s turn.

“It’s going to change. There is no doubt about it.” Specifically, Thrun believes, higher education is going to change. He has launched Udacity, an online university, and wants to provide mass high quality education for the world. For students in developing countries who can’t get it any other way, or for students in the first world, who can but may choose not to. Pay thousands of pounds a year for your education? Or get it free online?

University, of course, is about so much more than the teaching. There’s the socialising, of course, or, as we call it here in Britain, drinking. There’s the living away from home and learning how to boil water stuff. And there’s the all-important sex and catching a social disease stuff. But this is the way disruptions tend to work: they disrupt first, and figure out everything else at some unspecified time later.

Thrun’s great revelation came just over a year ago at the same TED conference where he unveiled the self-driving car. “I heard Salman Khan talk about the Khan Academy and I was just blown away by it,” he says. “And I still am.” Salman Khan, a softly spoken 36-year-old former hedge fund analyst, is the founding father of what’s being called the classroom revolution, and is feted by everyone from Bill Gates (who called him “the world’s favourite teacher”) down.

The Khan Academy, which he set up almost accidentally while tutoring his niece and nephew, now has 3,400 short videos or tutorials, most of which Khan made himself, and 10 million students. “I was blown away by it,” says Thrun. “And frankly embarrassed that I was teaching 200 students. And he was teaching millions.”

Thrun decided to open up his Stanford artificial intelligence class, CS221, to the world. Anybody could join, he announced. They’d do the same coursework as the Stanford students and at the end of it take the same exam.

CS221 is a demanding, difficult subject. On campus, 200 students enrolled, and Thrun thought they might pull in a few thousand on the web. By the time the course began, 160,000 had signed up. “It absolutely blew my mind,” says Thrun. There were students from every single country in the world – bar North Korea. What’s more, 23,000 students graduated. And all of the 400 who got top marks were students who’d done it online.

It was, says Thrun, his “wonderland” moment. Having taught a class of 160,000 students, he couldn’t go back to being satisfied with 200. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” Thrun said in a speech a few months later. “I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen wonderland. We can really change the world with education.”

By the time I sign up to Udacity’s beginners’ course in computer science, how to build a search engine, 200,000 students have already graduated from it. Although when I say “graduate” I mean they were emailed a certificate. It has more than a touch of Gillian McKeith’s PhD about it, though it seems employers are taking it seriously: a bunch of companies, including Google, are sponsoring Udacity courses and regularly cream off the top-scoring students and offer them jobs.

I may have to wait a while for that call, though I’m amazed at how easy Udacity videos are to follow (having tips and advice on search-engine building from Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, doesn’t hurt). Like the Khan Academy, it avoids full-length shots of the lecturer and just shows a doodling hand.

According to Brin, if you have basic programming ability – which we’ll all have if we complete the course – and a bit of creativity, “you could come up with an idea that might just change the world”. But then that’s Silicon Valley for you.

What’s intriguing is how this will translate into a British context. Because, of course, when it comes to revolutionising educational access, Britain has led the world. We’ve had the luxury of open access higher education for so long – more than 40 years now – that we’re blasé about it. When the Open University was launched in 1969, it was both radical and democratic. It came about because of improvements in technology – television – and it’s been at the forefront of educational innovation ever since. It has free content – on OpenLearn and iTunesU. But at its heart, it’s no longer radically democratic. From this year, fees are £5,000.

In America, Thrun is not the only one to have taken the pills. A year on from the Stanford experiment, and the world of higher education and the future of universities is completely different. Thrun’s wasn’t the only class to go online last autumn. Two of his computer science colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, also took part, with equally mind-blowing results. They too have set up a website, Coursera. And while Udacity is developing its own courses, Coursera is forming partnerships with universities to offer existing ones. When I met Koller in July, shortly after the website’s launch, four universities had signed up – Stanford, Princeton, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Just four months later, it has 33 partner universities, 1.8 million students and is having venture capital thrown at it – $16m (£10m) in the first round. And it doesn’t stop there. It’s pretty remarkable that Coursera and Udacity were spun out of the same university, but also the same department (Thrun and Koller still supervise a PhD student together). And they have the dynamic entrepreneurial change-the-world quality that characterise the greatest and most successful Silicon Valley startups.

“We had a million users faster than Facebook, faster than Instagram,” says Koller. “This is a wholesale change in the educational ecosystem.”

But they’re not alone. Over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Anant Argarwal, another professor of computer science, who also cites Khan as his inspiration (and who was, in a neat twist, once his student), has launched edX, featuring content from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas System.

Argarwal is not a man prone to understatement. This, he says, is the revolution. “It’s going to reinvent education. It’s going to transform universities. It’s going to democratise education on a global scale. It’s the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years.” The last major one, he says, was “probably the invention of the pencil”. In a decade, he’s hoping to reach a billion students across the globe. “We’ve got 400,000 in four months with no marketing, so I don’t think it’s unrealistic.”

More than 155,000 students took the first course he taught, including a whole class of children in Mongolia. “That was amazing!” says Argarwal. “And we discovered a protégé. One of his students, Batthushig, got a perfect score. He’s a high school student. I can’t overstate how hard this course was. If I took it today, I wouldn’t get a perfect score. We’re encouraging him to apply to MIT.” This is the year, Argarwal says, that everything has changed. There’s no going back. “This is the year of disruption.”

A month ago, I signed up for one of the Coursera courses: an introduction to genetics and evolution, taught by Mohamed Noor, a professor at Duke University. Unlike Udacity’s, Coursera’s courses have a start date and run to a timetable. I quite fancied a University of Pennsylvania course on modern poetry but it had already started. This one was 10 weeks long, would feature “multiple mini-videos roughly 10-15 minutes in length”, each of which would contain a number of quizzes, and there would also be three tests and a final exam.

It’s just me, Noor, and my 36,000 classmates. We’re from everywhere: Kazakhstan, Manila, Donetsk, Iraq. Even Middlesbrough. And while I watch the first videos and enjoy Noor’s smiley enthusiasm, I’m not blown away.

They’re just videos of lectures, really. There’s coursework to do, but I am a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it’s a week or so later when I go back and check out the class forum.

And that’s when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking – and answering – questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There’s one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they’re so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

Four weeks in, Noor announces that he’s organising a Google hangout: it’s where a limited number of people can talk via their webcams. But it’s scheduled for 1am GMT on Sunday morning. I go to sleep instead. However I do watch the YouTube video of it the next day and it’s fascinating viewing. Despite the time, Richard Herring, a train driver from Sheffield, is there, bright and alert and wanting to tell Noor how much he’s enjoying the course.

“Richard!” says Noor. “Nice to meet you! Your posts are amazing. I often find that before I have a chance to go in and answer a question, somebody else has already answered it, and it’s often Richard. Thank you.”

“I just love science,” says Richard. “I was never any good at school, but I’ve just picked it up along the way. It’s a brilliant course. To get something like this without paying anything is marvellous. I’m loving it.”

So is Sara Groborz, a graphic designer who was born in Poland but now lives in Britain. And then there’s Naresh Ramesh, from Chennai, who’s studying for a degree in biotechnology, and Maria, who lives in the US and is using the course to teach her students in a juvenile correction institute. Aline, a high school student in El Salvador, comes on. She took the course, she says, because she goes to a Catholic school where they don’t teach evolution. “And you’re the best teacher I’ve ever had!” she tells Noor.

How gratifying must it be to be a teacher on one of these courses? When I catch up by email with Noor the next day, he writes. “I’m absolutely LOVING it!” By phone, he says it’s one of the most exciting things he’s ever done.

What’s more, it means that next semester he’s going to be able to “flip the classroom”. This is a concept that Khan has popularised and shown to be successful: students do the coursework at home by watching the videos, and then the homework in class, where they can discuss the problems with the instructor.

There are still so many issues to figure out with online education. Not least the fact that you don’t get a degree out of it, although a university in the US has just announced that it will issue credit for it. At the moment, most people are doing courses for the sake of simply learning new stuff. “And a certificate, basically a pdf, which says this person may or may not be who they say they are,” says Noor.

And while computers are excellent at grading maths questions, they’re really much less hot at marking English literature essays. There’s a preponderance of scientific and technical subjects, but the number of humanties courses is increasing with what Koller says is “surprisingly successful” peer assessment techniques. “It can’t replace a one-to-one feedback from an expert in the field, but with the right guidance, peer assessment and crowd-sourcing really does work.”

And in terms of content, the course I’m doing is pretty much the same as the one Noor’s students take. At Duke, they have more interaction, and a hands-on lab environment, but they are also charged $40,000 a year for the privilege.

It’s a lot of money. And it’s this, that makes Udacity’s and Coursera’s and edX’s courses so potentially groundbreaking. At the moment, they’re all free. And while none of them can compete with traditional degrees, almost every other industry knows what happens when you give teenagers the choice between paying a lot of money for something or getting it for nothing.

Of course, education isn’t quite an industry, but it is a business, or as Matt Grist, an education analyst from the thinktank Demos tells me, “a market”, although he immediately apologises for saying this. “I know. It’s terrible. That’s the way we talk about it these days. I don’t really like it, but I do it. But it is a market. And universities are high-powered businesses with massive turnovers. Some of the best institutions in Britain are global players these days.”

Grist has been looking at the funding model of British universities, and sees trouble ahead. The massive rise in fees this year is just the start of it. “We’ve set off down this road now, and if you create competition and a market for universities, I think you’re going to have to go further.” He foresees the best universities becoming vastly more expensive, and the cheaper, more vocational ones “holding up”. “It’s the middle-tier, 1960s campus ones that I think are going to struggle.”

When I ask Koller why education has suddenly become the new tech miracle baby, she describes it as “the perfect storm. It’s like hurricane Sandy, all these things have come together at the same time. There’s an enormous global need for high quality education. And yet it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable. And at the same time, we have technological advances that make it possible to provide it at very low marginal cost.”

And, in Britain, the storm is perhaps even more perfect. This is all happening at precisely the moment that students are having to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees and being forced to take on unprecedented levels of debt.

Students, whether they like it or not, have been turned into consumers. Education in Britain has, until now, been a very pure abstraction, a concept untainted by ideas of the market or value. But that, inevitably, is now changing. University applications by UK-born students this year were down almost 8%. “Though the number who turned up was much lower than that,” Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust, tells me. “They were 15% down.”

The trust champions social mobility and nothing accelerates that more than university. “That’s why we’re so keen on it,” says Lampl. “We’re monitoring the situation. We don’t know what the true impact of the fees will be yet. Or what the impact of coming out of university with £50,000 worth of debt will have on the rest of your life. “Will it delay you buying a house? Or starting a family? People compare it to the States, but in America one third of graduates have no debt, and two-thirds have an average of $25,000. This is on a completely different scale.”

And it’s amid this uncertainty and this market pressure that these massive open online courses – or Moocs as they’re known in the jargon – may well come to play a role. There are so many intangible benefits to going to university. “I learned as much if not more from my fellow students than I did from the lectures,” says Lampl. But they’re the things – making life-long friends, joining a society, learning how to operate a washing machine – that are free. It’s the education bit that’s the expensive part. But what Udacity and the rest are showing is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be.”

The first British university to join the fray is Edinburgh. It’s done a deal with Coursera and from January, will offer six courses, for which 100,000 students have already signed up. Or, to put this in context, four times as many undergraduates as are currently at the university.

It’s an experiment, says Jeff Hayward, the vice-principal, a way of trying out new types of teaching “I’ll be happy if we break even.” At the moment Coursera doesn’t charge students to receive a certificate of completion, but at some point it’s likely to, and when it does, Edinburgh will get a cut.

But then Edinburgh already has an online model. More than 2,000 students studying for a masters at the university aren’t anywhere near it; they’re online. “And within a few years, we’re ramping that up to 10,000,” says Hayward.

For undergraduates, on the other hand, study is not really the point of university, or at least not the whole point. I know a student at Edinburgh called Hannah. “Do you have any lectures tomorrow?” I text her. “Only philosophy at 9am,” she texts back. “So obviously I’m not going to that.”

She’s an example of someone who would be quite happy to pay half the fees, and do some of the lectures online. “God yes. Some of the lecturers are so crap, anyway. We had a tutorial group the other day, and he just sat there and read the paper and told us to get on with it.”

Max Crema, the vice-president of the student union, tells me that he’s already used online lectures from MIT to supplement his course. “Though that may be because I’m a nerd,” he concedes. “The problem with lectures is that they are about 300 years out of date. They date back to the time when universities only had one book. That’s why you still have academic positions called readers.”

I trot off to one of them, an actual lecture in an actual lecture theatre, the old anatomy theatre, a steeply raked auditorium that’s been in use since the 19th century when a dissecting table used to hold centre stage, whereas today there’s just Mayank Dutia, professor of systems neurophysiology, talking about the inner ear.

He’s one of the first academics signed up to co-deliver one of the Coursera courses come January, although he defends the real-life version too: “Universities are special places. You can’t do what we do online. There’s something very special in being taught by a world leader in the field. Or having a conversation with someone who’s worked on a subject their whole lives. There’s no substitute for this.”

There isn’t. But what the new websites are doing is raising questions about what a university is and what it’s for. And how to pay for it. “Higher education is changing,” says Hayward. “How do we fund mass global education? There are agonies all over the world about this question.”

There are. And there’s no doubting that this is something of a turning point. But it may have an impact closer to home too. Argarwal sees a future in which universities may offer “blended” models: a mixture of real-life and online teaching.

Coursera has already struck its first licensing deal. Antioch College, a small liberal arts institution in Ohio, has signed an agreement under which it will take content from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. And a startup called the Minerva Project is attempting to set up an online Ivy League university, and is going to encourage its students to live together in “dorm clusters” so that they’ll benefit from the social aspects of university life. Seeing how the students on Coursera and Udacity organise themselves, it’s not impossible to see how in the future, students could cluster together and take their courses online together. For free.

There’s so much at stake. Not least the economies of dozens of smallish British cities, the “second-tier” universities that Matt Grist of Demos foresees could struggle in the brave new free education market world.

At Edinburgh, fees are having an effect – applications are down – but “most students seem to see it as mañana money,” says Jeff Hayward. “It’s still hypothetical at the moment.”

But this is the first year of £9,000 fees. An English student at Edinburgh (it’s free for Scottish students), where courses are four years, is looking at £36,000 of debt just for tuition. And maybe another £30,000 of living expenses on top of that.

These websites are barely months old. They’re still figuring out the basics. Universities aren’t going anywhere just yet. But who knows what they’ll look like in 10 years’ time? A decade ago, I thought newspapers would be here for ever. That nothing could replace a book. And that KITT, David Hasselhoff’s self-driving car in Knight Rider was nothing more than a work of fantasy.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.