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Thursday
Jun212012

Why pay for education? 

In the autumn Harvard and MIT expect to welcome 500,000 new students who will take courses delivered on their newly launched edX plantform. Of even greater interest is the fact that the courses will be available free to anybody with a computer and internet connection – no admission requirements either.

Stanford, Princeton and other universities in the US are also offering courses online. Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig deliver an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to 160,000 students in over 190 countries. This is offered free also.

So, what's the catch? Well, other than the fact that students don't earn credits or receive a university certificate, there doesn't appear to be one. The principle appears to be that knowledge for its own sake should be freely available to all who seek it. If the universities continue to provide this knowledge without charging then the conclusion must be that the fee being paid by traditional students is for their parchment – and the value it carries in the employment market.

There is a significant philosophical principle underlying this development. In effect, it appears to decommodify education while acknowledging the cachet of reputation. For example, being a graduate of Harvard opens doors that would otherwise remain firmly shut. Thus it seems reasonable that those who can afford to join the club should have to pay for the privilege while those who are simply interested in becoming knowledable are free to do so availing of what is presumed to be the best teaching in the world. There is something of the Age of Enlightenment about it with gentlemen amateur scholars pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

But, is it really as simple as that? Will the online experiment remain free? Is the demand sustainable? Will fee-paying students continue to value attendance on campus? 

Thrun suggests that in fifty years the world will have only ten institutions delivering higher education. At the current rate of take up on his module that seems a reasonable prediction but it would put education, the development of society and the discovery of new knowledge in the hands of a very few – giving them unprecedented power and a means of control never envisaged before. Nevertheless, it is a very real possibility. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen (The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out) argues that the standard model of university education in the US …

… has become unsustainable. To avoid disruption, institutions of higher education must develop strategies that transcend imitation. They must also master the disruptive technology of online learning and make other innovations.

He goes on to remind us that …

… the job that students and policymakers need done is the bestowal of the insights and skills necessary not just to make a living but to make the most of life.

 How do online courses address the latter part of the job? How, indeed, do for profit institutions address it? These questions are set to become increasingly important in Ireland as the Government develop their National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030.

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