Friday, February 16, 2007

Going to Yale for free?

By Bryan O'Keefe

The Wall Street Journal had an excellent story in yesterday’s edition about the growth of free online classes at elite universities. As the piece explains, all of the course lectures and materials are put online for free, essentially allowing anybody – student or not – to take the class. They also touched on how technology is also being employed in these classes, with students able to download lectures onto iPods and view digital videos of classroom instruction. It was particularly interesting to read several experiences from students actually using the course material – they universally described it in positive terms.

The story raises two interesting points in my mind. First, I generally think that the idea behind the concept is terrific. As Rich has written many times, universities have been slow to adapt to change. Reading about lectures being delivered on iPods shows that the academy is starting to finally realize that technology can be used to fundamentally change the college experience – in a good way. I am also sure that for many of the people using these online courses, they are getting an excellent experience at zero cost. Kudos to them for taking advantage of it.

The only problem however is that it makes me wonder why universities are charging tuition at all, if you can get more and more classes online for free. The most plausible explanation is that with many elite colleges, you really are just buying a college name to put next to your own. One would think that the intellectual foundations of a class or course are what students are paying for – that, in an abstract sense, you are forking over all of that tuition money so you can learn lots of informative things from talented professors. But by giving more things away for free, colleges are showing that their main product is not the intellectual material itself, but instead the ability to say that “I graduated from XYZ school.”

In fact, it’s plausible to think that if these online classes continue to grow in popularity, that many people will be able to take the equivalent of a whole degree program online. As the story points out, MIT is already offering over 1,500 classes in this manner. So, a diligent student can download all of the course material, listen to the lectures on an iPod or watch them through digital video, and even communicate with the professor through email. In many ways, he or she has already graduated with a degree from MIT. But in order to make that official, they would have to fork over $100,000 or more. (and also take the classes for a grade, but, presumably, many students would be able to pass these tests, especially if they were diligent about the work)

This story raises many interesting questions about the real value of a college education in the traditional setting – stay tuned.

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