Information Wants To Be Free, But Does Education?

The concept that anyone – regardless of socioeconomic background – could get an Ivy League education for free would seem to be the Holy Grail of education, particularly at a time when the nation’s total student loan debt has passed the $1 trillion mark. Who would argue against the world’s best professors teaching you subjects in the sciences and humanities while you’re at home streaming course videos the way you might a Netflix movie?

The state of Minnesota did exactly that, suggesting (for a short time) that the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that have taken the educational world by storm this year may just be illegal for the state’s residents. In all fairness, it’s not that Minnesota fears disruption in education, rather it fears all these online courses may be too good to be true. Shortly after reports started appearing, Minnesota clarified its position: their issue was with those wily folks from places like Massachusetts and California crossing over Internet state lines under the cover of darkness to offer free courses without first signing up to be a registered educational provider within the state.

Which raises an interesting question: Can education be democratized and the cost of each course reduced to zero, similar to the entertainment industry?

For educational providers, the key is being able to distill all of the essential aspects of an elite education into a Web-friendly format?. Just as we once ripped apart CDs and movies to transform them into digital streams, we are now attempting to rip apart Ivy League course lectures, transform them into digital bits, and then offer them online to anyone in the world for free.

That’s the easy part. The tricky part is transforming all the intangibles of an elite education such as one-on-one contact with the professor into something that can be distributed (and priced) online. There’s also the matter of handing out certifications and degrees. As Coursera’s struggle with plagiarism this summer shows, the state of Minnesota might actually have a valid point regarding quality. Finally, there’s the matter of access: will students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds really have the same opportunity as students with greater access to the latest electronics?

It all seems doable enough that Stanford president John Hennessy came out this year and said that it's not a matter of if, but when, online higher education becomes free.

And he’s not alone. The Post’s own Vivek Wadhwa recently predicted that all online education would be totally free within 10 years — and that includes an education from the same elite institutions who have joined Coursera. For a really mind-blowing scenario of how it all unfolds check out the EPIC 2020 video — it lays out a realistic route for free online education by the year 2020.

The math certainly seems simple enough. The biggest courses can attract as many as 150,000 people each. Instead of charging annual tuition, a top educational institution could conceivably charge tuition on a course-by-course or a lecture-by-lecture basis. At some point, the price of each lecture might be driven down to $0.99, which seems to be the going price of entertainment these days. Imagine tens of thousands of students from all over the world, downloading lectures for $0.99 each. It would just be a matter of pricing the content correctly and rewarding rock star professors the way we would reward rock stars on iTunes.

What makes the whole education-wants-to-be-free debate so intriguing is that the entrenched market leaders are actually the ones driving the greatest disruption. The leaders of the MOOC revolution have been the likes of Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Princeton. In fact, some have even referred to this past spring as the "Ivy League Spring" — the events have been that dramatic, with educational regimes toppling overnight. However, as we now know from recent experience, spring-time movements can be rolled back just as quickly as they started. Let’s hope it’s not the case with online education.


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