Will higher education be free?

Those of you who follow Chris Anderson’s blog know that he’s been working on a book on the concept of a free economy, and an article on this subject is on the cover of Wired this month. The underlying premise of the article is that the cost of the fundamental technologies of the internet–bandwidth, memory, and processing speed–have become so cheap as to be effectively zero, thus opening up a free economy. Obviously, Google and Yahoo! are tremendously successful examples of this. You can read his article for where he goes with it.

However it got me wondering whether higher education will ever be free.

Of course we see free higher ed in many places like MIT’s Open Courseware, iTunes U, and university channels on YouTube. We also have open access journals and various public academic projects such as course blogs, wikified textbooks, student journals, and so on. In short, there’s a lot of free academic content out there. What you can’t get for free is the diploma.

Now clearly there’s a human labor cost in higher education. In addition, the cost of education has continued to outpace inflation and I can assure you that that is NOT because faculty salaries are rising at that rate! However, there’s also a labor cost at Google, and Google is also clearly making a profit. Anderson describes several different types of free-based business models.

  • freemium: this model is essentially what you see with MIT. There’s a level of content and service that you can get for free. But there’s another level where you pay. Any college might do this: offering free access to course materials and scholarship.
  • advertising: I suppose this is a possibility, but this kind of commercialism is generally frowned-upon.
  • cross-subsidize: e.g., give away music cds, charge for the show. For colleges this might work similarly to the freemium model where you give away content but charge for credit.

The other cross-subsidy colleges provide is a kind of mentoring-coaching-advising. The average 18 yo heading to college is NOT going to be able to educate himself or herself by watching free content and participating on some free discussion about it. College students need more structure and discipline than that. But what does that mean?

As an undergrad at Rutgers I took about 40 courses with >30
professors. I had a close relationship with one professor. I was in the
office of maybe 2-3 others. The others I had in classes with more than
50, often more than 100 other students. I might as well have watched
them on a video on iTunes U as go to class. I turned in papers in some classes and got comments like "Very good, B." Mostly though I took blue-book exams that were graded by graduate assistants. My point is that there was almost zero interaction. I’m not saying this is ideal. Nor am I suggesting this is horrible. It is what it is. I learned a lot. I just didn’t make friends with professors. My point is just that while there might be some ideal fantasy of what college should be like–with small classes and faculty mentors and so on–the reality is often quite different: a wholly online experience might not be ideal but then neither is the traditional experience.

Still, that doesn’t mean that college would be free. It means that you could access all the content you want, but if you want to be a student, get credit, and graduate, you’d need to pay. So is there a way that all of that could become free while still paying for faculty, staff, administrators, and everything else?

I’m guessing there’d be some interest in anyone who was able to solve that little problem. Here’s my little stab at it. Maybe you can tell me what you think.

  1. It has to be a virtual university with all free content. Maybe their could be some nominal costs or fees for some courses, like for books. Students would have to have computers and likely certain software for at least some degrees. So some majors would be free and others would have some costs. However here you are capitalizing on the relative zero cost of processing, memory, and bandwidth.
  2. For general education classes, you’d want to go with some centrally produced content supported by tutors and overseen by faculty. The idea would be to try to minimize the cost of these courses.
  3. For courses in a major, you likely need more direct contact with faculty, but how much? I would say, not too much. Someone qualified has to design the curriculum, assess courses, and provide grades.

Now there are some costs associated with this, but I think they would be quite lower. They could be partly subsidized by taxpayers. The faculty could be drawn from traditional colleges (where many students would still want to go). E.g., SUNY could have a virtual university drawing from SUNYwide faculty. This is part of the freemium model. You’d have students that would get online degrees and others who might do the first two years online and then go to a brick-and-mortar college.

Ultimately the point is to make this as inexpensive as possible while keeping to some standard. We’re at a dangerous crossroads where the educational costs keep rising, along with the importance of tertiary education: more people need to go to college and fewer can afford it.

We need to set aside our romantic and elitist notions of education and find something that works.

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