Higher Education for Free: What a Concept!

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

This week, the faculty union at my alma mater, the University of Manitoba, warned its members that certain websites are posting lecture notes in potential violation of professors’ intellectual property rights. The same week, MIT announced that it is providing free access to its entire collection of online courses. More importantly, it will provide a certificate of mastery for those that complete the course in good standing.

This nexus between intellectual rights and open access (essentially a new form of open admissions) is now a hot-button issue. On one side, and with reason, faculty members are questioning how their information—their intellectual capital—is being used. What is their ROI for time, effort, and expertise? On the other, the further push for a new model of higher education, propelled by no insignificant manner by one of the topic private universities in the world; one with annual student charges averaging over $50,000* per year. As Forbes magazine called it this week, this is “a curveball bound to scramble your worldview: a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background.”

MIT is taking a moral highground—a responsibility beyond its current students and faculty—akin to many of our nation’s philanthropers, such as the Fords, Astors, Rockefellers, and the more recent Gates and Buffetts. MIT President Susan Hockfield had this to say on Monday: “M.I.T. has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage M.I.T. coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best M.I.T.-based educational experience that Internet technology enables.” This is a “wow” moment, ladies and gentlemen, because it is truly a gamechanger.

Over the next several years, we will have to come to terms with open courseware and the need to protect intellectual rights of faculty and other instructors. The reality, for many institutions, is that faculty members forfeit some intellectual capital via their payment of salary. To use a separate analogy, if a chemist at Bayer develops a new anti-bacterial ointment, who owns the “intellectual rights” to that ointment? Bayer does. Similarly, if an instructor at a public institution of higher education creates a syllabus AND materials for the course, who owns it? Arguably, the university. But we understand that this is a murky area, but it is probably more true that professors do not get to “own” their course materials, per se, because they are being paid to develop this content. This reduces their argument of intellectual property, for sure.

This argument is much different today than it will be in 5-10 years, when the open course arena is more fully developed. MIT has simply opened the door. Harvard, Stanford, and perhaps even Oxford and Kyoto, will likely follow suit in some manner, if not for philanthropic reasons, just so they won’t look so bad in comparison. I’ve written before about the future of iTunes U and the possibility that students can put together their own educational chart. Now it is happening.

Forbes had it right: this movement by MIT throws a curveball to our Weltanschauung of higher education order. How can higher education be free? As we continue to find that higher education grows exponentially in costs and in pricing for students, families, and taxpayers, what message should be taken when one of the most prestigious and expensive institutions in the world decides to give a free pass—to anyone—for any of their online courses? This is fascinating stuff.

This policy move by MIT has the potential to create a seismic shift in our thinking about how we create and produce higher education for the masses. Instead of thinking of greater infrastructure and more “seats,” we should be thinking of more knowledge and simplified dissemination and assessment processes that are not only less expensive, but a lot less expensive. How many course syllabi do we really need for intro physics? Or philosophy? Thousands? Not many, me thinks, but that is the system we have today. I’d rather see core courses created and administered en masse so that our faculty can focus on more focused, higher-level course work, whether graduate or other levels, instead of plodding somewhat unnecessarily through charted territory (and I can argue against this, too!).

So we should thank MIT for the very nice Christmas Gift. Or Solstice, or whatever you want to call it. This is a great gift to our society—not just because it helps open up those clandestine doors of exclusive education—but for initiating a dialogue about how we serve students—all students—especially those who cannot afford the tuition.


Happy Holidays from the Educational Policy Institute. See you in 2012!

*The 2010-11 tuition and fee charges at MIT were $39,212, plus $11,234 for room and board. Other expenses were estimated (by MIT) at $2,764, totaling $53,210. See http://web.mit.edu/facts/tuition.html for further details.

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