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August 20, 2009

MIT or Stanford for free?

by Chris Lindholm

Seth Godin's recent post called "Education at the crossroads" presents an intriguing conversation for those of us in public education… one that must be had.  MIT and Stanford are now offering some classes online – for free.  The context of Seth's post is directed at higher education institutions who usually charge large tuitions to support the enormous infrastructure costs of building and running large campuses with residential and academic resources for students.  He presents three big decisions these institutions will soon have to face:

  • Should this (higher education coursework) be scarce or abundant?
  • Should this be free or expensive?
  • Should this be about school or about learning?

Most intriguing is the conversation he begins after presenting these three questions about what higher education might like with different answer combinations.

Imagine a school that's built around free, abundant learning. And compare it to one that's focused on scarce, expensive schooling. Or dream up  your own combination. My recent MBA program, for example, was scarce (only 9 people got to do it) and it was free and focused on learning.

Just because something is free doesn't meant there isn't money to be made. Someone could charge, for example, for custom curricula, or focused tutoring, or for a certified (scarce) degree. When a million people are taking your course, you only need 1% to pay you to be happy indeed.

Eight combinations of the three choices are available and my guess is that all eight will be tried. If I were going to wager, I'd say that the free, abundant learning combination is the one that's going to change the world.

Hmmm…  It seems to me that "free, abundant learning" is really the bedrock of what k-12 public education was and is supposed to be – unlike post-secondary education.  Online schools currently exist and meet the needs of a small but growing population, but there is certainly more to public education than boiled down content… right?  What are those things?  Do we measure them and communicate them to the public?  Have we done the legwork necessary to make the case that public education offers far more than online coursework?  We have work to do in this area. 

Possibly most significant is the possibility that post-secondary education may finally be, like k-12, free and abundant for all students.  In a democracy like ours, is there really a down side to that?  Indeed Mr. Godin, that may change the world…

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