Is Free, No-Cost Education The Future of Higher Ed?

After taking in the developments of the last few years, most people have come around to the fact that online education is changing higher education — for better or worse. With many concerned about increasing levels of student debt and the growing cost of college education to both families and governments, anything that could deliver high quality instruction for a cheaper price is bound to draw attention and support. Yet, Jeffery King, in a column for U.S. News & World Report, takes the next step and asks whether it’s possible to make online education free for everyone.

Many of the top colleges around the world now offer some of their most exciting and popular academic content online for free via massive online open courses — MOOCs. Some schools have even taken steps to legitimize MOOC-based learning and offer legitimate academic qualifications based on knowledge gained online. It seems like those who believe that information should be free are seeing the development of a world where free is becoming a reality.

For education, this concept was thrust into public consciousness with MIT’s creation of an online open courseware platform a decade ago, where MIT’s complete course catalog was to be placed online for the entire world to use, with other institutions quickly following suit. Their initiative was named “Open Educational Resources” (OER) and it has been clear from the start that this shift to online education is intended to remain free. Jumping to the present day, OER is clearly gaining momentum, and numerous colleges are offering higher online courses across every major academic subject.

Something that has become a cause of concern for US universities is being embraced by the government in Canada, where some view online education is a legitimate money-saving opportunity. At the moment, plans are being floated to convert up to 60% of undergraduate courses to allow them to be taken — and taught — on the internet.

Free education will benefit more people than just those living in the U.S. or Europe, says King. As he points out, many on the market for accessible higher education live in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.

A large number of youths have no access to any form of education, and online resources are a brilliant solution in bettering their prospects in life. Aside from the important concept of a level playing field, it can be argued that providing communities around the world with the means to learn is undeniably a force for good. But if online courses were to introduce a fee system, such education would once again be out of reach for the people who could benefit the most from it. There is a clear link between education and social livelihood in developed as well as developing countries, with a direct correlation between lack of education and poverty—a motivating factor for keeping online education a free resource.

Not everyone is swayed by the potential of online education. Even while recognizing its disruptive influence, some remain concerned about how it will affect teachers, traditional colleges, and even the very foundation of higher education. Those who express these concerns aren’t necessarily Luddites standing in the way of progress — they tend to be worried that the changes online ed will bring will not be for the better, and that the internet will never deliver instruction as effectively as a teacher in front of a classroom.

So far, however, research hasn’t borne out these concerns. Far from providing inferior education, there has been support for the idea that allowing technology into the classroom will improve it. King concludes that we’re swiftly coming to a time when those who stand in the way of broader online ed adoption will need to provide better arguments — or step aside.

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