Open Courses: Free, but Oh, So Costly

Online students want credit; colleges want a working business model

He was on a hang glider, and he slammed the ground hard on his chin. Recovery from surgery on his broken back left the 39-year-old high-school dropout with time for college courses.

From a recliner, the drugged-up crash victim tried to keep his brain from turning to mush by watching a free introductory-biology course put online by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hooked, he moved on to lectures about Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian from an English course at Yale. Then he bought Paradise Lost.

A success for college-made free online courses—except that Mr. Ziegler, who works for a restaurant-equipment company in Pennsylvania, is on the verge of losing his job. And those classes failed to provide what his résumé really needs: a college credential.

Colleges, too, are grappling with the limits of this global online movement. Enthusiasts think open courses have the potential to uplift a nation of Zieglers by helping them piece together cheaper degrees from multiple institutions. But some worry that universities’ projects may stall, because the recession and disappearing grant money are forcing colleges to confront a difficult question: What business model can support the high cost of giving away your “free” content?

Utah State University recently mothballed its OpenCourseWare venture after running out of money from the state and from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has financed much of the open-content movement. …

More free programs may run aground. So argues David Wiley, open education’s Everywhere Man, who set up the Utah venture and is now an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. … “Every OCW initiative at a university that does not offer distance courses for credit,” he has blogged, “will be dead by the end of calendar 2012.”

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Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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