The Arrival of Free Online Education
For the second time in as many weeks, I find myself taking content cues from Kirsten Winkler over at Disrupt Education. This time, however, Kirsten’s posting merely gave me the budge I needed to publish, rather than being the basis for my entire post. (Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography comes to mind here…I seem to recall there being a passage in which he discusses learning to write simply by copying passages from the classics.) Kirsten’s Thursday post is about the various purveyors of free online education, including Coursera and edX (the Harvard-MIT partnership that was formally announced earlier this week). Wednesday, Kevin Carey over at The Quick & The Ed wrote a piece about the edX announcement.
As I intend to do with most things related to education technology, I’m going to leave the heavy lifting to people who know a thing or two about the sector. My contribution will be asking more questions than I can answer about how this will impact the issues that I follow most closely. I happened to be emailing with Casey Jennings (COO at 13th Avenue Funding) today and we were discussing just such questions. To what extent will free online classes make expensive brick and mortar learning obsolete? As Casey says, “Free is easy to finance.” Are there certain types of learning that can’t be “webified”? Kevin Carey takes a stab at the first question in his conclusion:
Harvardx won’t compete with Harvard University in the business of running admissions tournaments for aspiring members of the ruling class or assembling great minds in a single place to conduct world-class scholarship and reseach. Harvardx will be competing with everyone who isn’t Harvard University, or its general equivalent. Expensive, newly-arrived, brand-deficient for-profit online colleges probably have the most to fear, followed by over-priced private non-profits and then lower-quality non-selective public institutions. It’s going to be interesting to watch.
To the extent that he’s right, I think this can definitely be considered progress. “Expensive, newly arrived, brand-deficient for-profit online colleges” are, in my opinion, some of the biggest offenders when it comes to driving up overall student debt. Their costs are high and their product quality is generally lower. They make promises to students they can’t keep and then proceed to laugh all the way to the bank, taking tax-payer dollars and the financial futures of sadly gullible students with them. (See Senator Tom Harkin’s quote on one such online-education operator, Bridgepoint: “In the world of for-profit higher education, spectacular business success is possible despite an equally spectacular record of student failure. Bridgepoint is a private company, but it is almost entirely dependent on public funds…I think this is a scam, an absolute scam.”)
I really didn’t intend for this to become an invective against for-profit higher education. Afterall, Udacity is for-profit. The difference between Udacity and Bridgepoint, however, is night and day. Cost, quality and most importantly, the promises made to students are vastly divergent. I predict that the arrival of free online education will do more to “tighten” the nonprofit higher education industry. As the labor market wizens to what is and isn’t replaceable with respect to a traditional brick and mortar college degree and experience, both online and offline providers will adjust their services accordingly.