Can States Outlaw Free Online Education?

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Brandon Ferdig is writer from Minneapolis, MN. He shares his personal growth pieces, human interest stories, and commentary at his blog. He is currently writing a book titled New Plateaus in China, a compilation of travelogue, personal experience, human interest, and social observations from China. You can follow Brandon on Twitter @brandonferdig.


  1. wellokaythen says:

    Of course the state government was silly to try to attack free courses in such a fashion. A totally clumsy way to make a point.

    On the other hand, there’s a part of me (perhaps the self-interested part that lives on a teacher’s salary) that wonders if the old proverb is true that you get what you pay for. Someone somewhere invested money to set up these systems. Someone had to get paid to develop them, and someone is getting paid to maintain the websites and administer the grading system. At least, I HOPE someone is getting paid to grade all those assignments. If you say there aren’t any grades, then I’m wondering how you know you’ve learned what you’re supposed to have learned.

    I’m wondering how a free online class is really much different from just going online and looking up the answers yourself on your own time.

    I think it’s totally hysterical that people now use “innovation” as an absolute good, meaning the more innovation the better, and “we’re better because we innovate more than you do.” This basically assumes that newer is better, and the more newness you have the better everything will be. Supersititious baloney, but baloney that’s making a lot of money today.

    Oh, well. It will all work itself out in the job market and in daily life. Nothing to lose from free classes except your time.

  2. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Here’s the deal, and my critique will come in two parts. Coursera is, I believe, a Trojan horse, and its purpose is to destroy our higher education system.

    “They are doing this by partnering up with universities across the world and having the universities offer their courses online free of charge using the Coursera website.”

    Nope, the no-charge bit is very temporary. It’s intended to get a foot in the door. Actually Ng (who claims only to be interested in student welfare) would not have set up a company if he didn’t intend to monetize Coursera soon. College administrators are VERY interested because it’s a way to get rid of tenure (point one.) Just as everyone is realizing that today’s students need much more direct engagement from professors, we get this move to have big anonymous lectures by elite university professors.

    Of course these are the very professors who are generally known as bad teachers, but, no matter, “prestige” is supposed to trump teaching skill here. So what administrators hope will happen is that that they can close buildings, and stop hiring tenure-track faculty. Instead they’ll substitute part-time adjuncts (maybe masters degree level) who’ll proctor exams and maybe work with students who need help. No reason to tenure them. It’s crazy, of course (point two) because these courses are much more like a Great Course than a real university course. So they’re likely not to be very effective. Teaching is basically an intimate process, but this is going in the opposite direction. Follow the absolutely decernable interest, not the happy-face ideology.

    The idea, in the face of an almost post-literate generation of college students (I’ve taught them for thirty years) is nutty. And it serves the interests of those who are out to serve the destruction of education, particularly liberal education, in the US. The idea that elite university people are behind this is presumptuous on their part.

    I have a really bad feeling about this one.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Ah, a kindred spirit.

      What has surprised a lot of college and university administrations is how expensive online education can be to administer. It is not as big a savings as many people hoped. You would think that not requiring classroom space and hiring part-timers would save loads of money, but that has not really materialized. There are technology, personnel, and training costs that make it not such a great deal unless you can do it on a massive level and benefit from economies of scale (U. of Phoenix, for example).

      Another downside is that in general each institution is heavily reliant on only one courseware package produced by only one company, in a field that has very little competition at the moment. It’s in the company’s best interest to enforce obsolescence every few years and require the school to buy a new version. (Newer is always better, right? And newer is always more expensive, oddly enough….) Or, that company gets bought out by another company and that software is now unsupported and you have to buy a new one. The courseware providers have schools over a barrel.

  3. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Hmmmm. Did someone say, “Blackboard?”

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I’ll be the first to admit that faculty unions and teachers’ unions have interests that may run counter to student interests. In pursuing their own interests they may obstruct education in some ways.

    But, are people thinking that edu-companies are MORE committed to student success? They have LESS self-interest when it comes to helping students learn? The profit motive is a kinder, gentler force for good than teachers’ interests? Guffaw.

    And let’s drop the whole “competition” and “free market” mythology about online education. We’re talking about companies that are seeking monopoly positions, not trying to stimulate competition. A big corporate monopoly is no more efficient or flexible than a faculty union, and generally much greedier.

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