• August 31, 2015

Open Courses: Free, but Oh, So Costly

Online students want credit; colleges want a working business model

Steven T. Ziegler leapt to MIT off a mountain.

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 real ly needs: a college credential.

"Do I put that I got a 343 out of 350 on my GED test at age 16?" he says, throwing up his hands. "I have nothing else to put."

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?

"With the economic downturn, I think it will be a couple of years before Yale or other institutions are likely to be able to make substantial investments in building out a digital course catalog," says Linda K. Lorimer, vice president and secretary at Yale, which is publishing a 36-class, greatest-hits-style video set called Open Yale Courses. Over the long term, she argues, such work will flourish.

Maybe. But 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. Utah State had published a mix of lecture notes, syllabi, audio and video recordings from more than 80 courses, a collection thought to be the country's second-largest behind the pioneering, 1,940-class MIT OpenCourseWare project. The program needed only $120,000 a year to survive. But the economy was so bad that neither the university nor the state Legislature would pony up more money for a project whose mission basically amounted to blessing the globe with free course materials.

'Dead by 2012'

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. A newspaper once likened him to Nostradamus for claiming that universities risked irrelevance by 2020. The education oracle offers another prophecy for open courseware. "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."

In other words: Nice knowing you, MIT OpenCourseWare. So long, Open Yale Courses.

"I think the economics of open courseware the way we've been doing it for the last almost decade have been sort of wrong," Mr. Wiley tells The Chronicle. Projects aimed for "the world," not bread-and-butter clientele like alumni and students. "Because it's not connected to any of our core constituencies, those programs haven't been funded with core funding. And so, in a climate where the economy gets bad and foundation funding slows, then that's a critical juncture for the movement."

Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director of MIT's OpenCourseWare, chuckles at the 2012 prediction and chides Mr. Wiley as someone who "specializes in provocative statements." But ventures around the country are seriously exploring new business strategies. For some, it's fund raising à la National Public Radio; for others, hooking open content to core operations by dangling it as a gateway to paid courses.

For elite universities, the sustainability struggle points to a paradox of opening access. If they do grant credentials, perhaps even a certificate, could that dilute their brands?

"Given that exclusivity has come to be seen by some as a question of how many students a university can turn away, I don't see what's going to make the selective universities increase their appetite for risking their brands by offering credits for online versions of core undergraduate courses," says Roger C. Schonfeld, research manager at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit group focused on technology in higher education that is studying online courseware.

The answer may be that elites won't have to. Others can.

Ever since MIT made its curriculum freely available online, its philanthropic feat has become a global trend. Colleges compete to add new classes to the Web's ever-growing free catalog. The result is a world where content and credentials no longer need to come from the same source. A freshman at Podunk U. can study with the world's top professors on YouTube. And within the emerging megalibrary of videos and syllabi and multimedia classes—a library of perhaps 10,000 courses—proponents see the building blocks of cheaper college options for self-teachers like Mr. Ziegler.

The Great Unbundling

How? When open-education advocates like MIT's Mr. Carson peer into their crystal balls, the images they see often hinge on one idea: the unbundling of higher education.

The Great Higher Education Unbundling notion is over a decade old. It's picked up buzz lately, though, as media commentators compare the Internet's threat to college "conglomerates" with the way Web sites like Craigslist clawed apart the traditional functions of newspapers.

Now take a university like MIT, where students pay about $50,000 a year for a tightly knit package of course content, learning experiences, certification, and social life. MIT OpenCourseWare has lopped off the content and dumped it in cyberspace. Eventually, according to Mr. Carson's take on the unbundling story, online learning experiences will emerge that go beyond just content. Consider Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, another darling of the movement, whose multimedia courses track students' progress and teach them with built-in tutors—no professor required.

"And then, ultimately, I think there will be increasing opportunities in the digital space for certification as well," Mr. Carson says. "And that those three things will be able to be flexibly combined by savvy learners, to achieve their educational goals at relatively low cost."

And social life? Don't we need college to tailgate and mate?

"Social life we'll just forget about because there's Facebook," Mr. Wiley says. "Nobody believes that people have to go to university to have a social life anymore."


If the paragraphs you just read triggered an it'll-never-happen snort, take a look at what futurists like Mr. Wiley are trying—today—on the margins of academe.

In August a global group of graduate students and professors went live with an online book-club-like experiment that layers the flesh of human contact on the bones of free content. At Peer 2 Peer University, course organizers act more like party hosts than traditional professors. Students are expected to essentially teach one another, and themselves.

In September a separate institution started that also exploits free online materials and peer teaching. At University of the People, 179 first-term freshmen are already taking part in a project that bills itself as the world's first nonprofit, tuition-free, online university.

But how do you translate such genre-benders into tangible college credit? University of the People hopes to earn accreditation. Peer 2 Peer University plans to encourage students to seek credits elsewhere, either by asking a traditional college to give independent-study credit or by steering students to institutions that grant credit to people who can prove they've learned material on their own.

At this point in the openness conversation, the example you hear over and over is a little-known university in Utah that took the old model, and, in the words of its president, "blew that up." That is Western Governors University—a nonprofit, accredited online institution that typically charges $2,890 per six-month term—where students advance by showing what they've learned, not how much time they've spent in class. It's called competency-based education. It means you can fast-forward your degree by testing out of stuff you've already mastered. Some see a marriage of open content and competency-based learning as a model for the small-pieces-loosely-joined chain of cheaper, fragmented education.

"We view the role of the university of the future as measuring and credentialing learning, not the source of all learning," says Robert W. Mendenhall, the president.

But much open courseware is "lousy," he warns. And it has to match the competencies of an education at Western Governors, which offers degrees in business, teaching, information technology, and health care.

Other questions remain. Will tuition creep drive students to a degree that costs, say, one-third MIT's price but commands only, say, 75 percent of its prestige? Will accreditors endorse a peer-teaching model? Can novices learn on their own?

"There's a pretty significant fraction of the population that learns better with instructor-led kinds of activities than purely self-paced activities," says John R. Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a group that supports online learning. "Can you have a group of students who know nothing about quantum mechanics and have them work in a group and discuss it and learn a lot? I think it's going to be difficult."

Others see benefits to dismembering old models. Specialists tend to do a better job, says Mr. Wiley, of Brigham Young. If you have cancer, you see an oncologist. If you attend Western Governors, you go through assessments prepared by people with backgrounds in psychometrics, not by Joe Professor who has lots of subject expertise but none in tests.

In Washington, meanwhile, the government is poised to yank hard on the cord bundling higher education. If Congress backs the Obama administration's plan, which is part of a community-college aid package, $500-million will be spent to build open courses online. The money would attack a sector some consider ripe for innovation. Community colleges, now flooded with students, are a choke point in the higher-education system.

It's possible to imagine that the federal government could create the elements of an open associate degree. One think-tanker has suggested that an institution could bundle the courses into a $1,000 package.

"I find it like a disruption," says Catherine M. Casserly, the Hewlett foundation's former director of open educational resources, speaking in general about the movement for openness. "It doesn't shift what's happening in some of the very stable traditional institutions of higher education. But there are huge numbers of others who aren't being served. And it's with those that I think we'll begin to see new forms."

From Pitching to Learning

It's Friday at the online WEBstaurant Store. In a windowless room filled with Formica samples and computers, Mr. Ziegler cocks his head toward a camera and plods through the motions of the job he's about to lose.

Recite cue card. Demonstrate product. Smile.

The video, about a food scale, is for a Web site known as the Amazon.com of restaurant gear. But today's shooting isn't a smooth process.

Flub line. Pound cutting board. Spew obscenity.

"There's a lot of cursing in this room," Mr. Ziegler says with a grin.

The drudgery of his sales career helps explain why this father of three and self-described "regular schmo" took so much joy in the free online courses he found after his glider crash.

But the lectures don't mitigate the crisis that hangs over Mr. Ziegler as he comes home from work after today's shoot, tie askew and a plastic bag of chocolate syrup in one hand, for the kids.

"Daddy's home!" says his daughter, Alice, who, being 12, promptly disappears.

Alice and her siblings, Ava, 8, and Franklin, 7, soon re-emerge, though, pressing their faces to the window to watch as Daddy sits in the backyard describing how his pay has been cut and his job eliminated.

He'd done fine financially until now, buying a slate-roof house in a neighborhood of Lancaster, Pa., that he calls a slice of Americana. He never cared about college credentials. Now he does.

"Looking for work for the first time in 20 years, having credit would be a very nice thing," he says.

Neither Yale nor MIT offers credit for their free online classes. But some experts predict the positive experience that Mr. Ziegler and many others have had with free online courses has the makings of one path to their sustainability.

The model boils down to six words: Do you like this? Enroll now!

It places colleges in the role of bakers laying out cake samples, with free content an inducement to for-credit courses. A Brigham Young pilot program is doing just that. So is the University of California at Irvine.

These efforts address a reality often lost in the open-education rhetoric. Free can be very expensive. Every course MIT publishes costs $10,000 to $15,000, roughly double for those with video. The money pays for back-end stuff users never see: Content collection. Reformatting. Intellectual-property vetting.

So how do you keep the lights on when foundation grants run out?

Lower production costs, some respond. Ms. Casserly tells the story of a Korean university where students competed to produce open lecture notes. The prize was an iPod and lunch with the university president.

But student scribblers aren't a realistic solution for a juggernaut like MIT OpenCourseWare, with its 1.3 million monthly visits and $3.7-million annual budget. MIT is banking on NPR-style fund raising. This was its recent e-mail appeal: "Though MIT will continue to support about half the cost of the program, our challenge is to offset the loss of grant funding with substantial increases in corporate sponsorships, major gifts, and donations from site visitors and supporters."

Carnegie Mellon is trying a different model. When its courses are good enough, with other colleges assigning them as e-textbooks, it asks students to pay a fee as low as $15, says Joel M. Smith, vice provost. "That would be a very, very, very cheap textbook," he says. "If it were used by a large number of colleges and universities, it could sustain the project."

Yale has no ambition to award credit for the free online courses at the moment, says Ms. Lorimer, citing the "additional burdens" for professors. Sustainability options include university or foundation support, plus commercial partnerships. Corporate sponsorships are now common for museum exhibits, she notes.

Steven Ziegler will probably never become a Yalie, but he may yet go back to school. He is weighing paid options, perhaps online, perhaps a certificate from a community college. It's difficult. With kids to support, he can't live on beer and Fritos. He sees money spent as money taken away from them.

But the free courses taught him one thing, something important when you've been out of school so long: He can do it. He can follow a Yale class. He has nothing to fear.

In the meantime, he hopes to tackle Paradise Lost this winter. Luckily, Yale has a free lecture to help him get through that.

Jeffrey R. Young contributed to this report.


1. ctcboard - October 12, 2009 at 04:18 pm

Sustainable investments need to be for local projects - for local reasons. That is, do what you were going to do anyway ... just do it digitally, and then put CC BY licensing on it and share it with others. The global sharing piece doesn't have to be expensive ... post it in Connexions and do some quick blog, twitter and listserv advertising through your network - and, if the content is quality and useful, word will spread. -- Cable Green (WA)

2. dallasm12 - October 12, 2009 at 04:28 pm

I workable model might be allowing people to be evaluated for learning obtained through free courseware. They would pay for the assessment which could yield them a certificate, credit, or some such thing.

3. 11242747 - October 13, 2009 at 08:30 am

Maybe it's just me, but I just can't put Facebook on a level where it can be that level of substitute for the relationships, experiences, etc. that I obtained during my college years.

There's still something to be said for physically AND intellectually being placed in a world and environment that can be far away from your place of origin.

4. drj50 - October 13, 2009 at 10:10 am

"students competed to produce open lecture notes." That's just how we got the works of many medieval academics. The more things change . . .

5. sundayatwork - October 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

When exactly did Facebook completly replace a social life? Do kids today really just sit on Facebook and poke each other? Or do they plan a night out with people they met in the real world and the go do something away from the computer. How many "friends" do you have they you don't know in real life. Would you really feel comfortable writing a recommendation for someone you had never met. It is easy to look good online, but there is still that whole pesky real world out there to deal with.

The internet has not replaced face to face learning. And until you can ask a video a question The physical university isn't going anywhere. Can you imaging a surgeon who just trained themself?

Of course, maybe they will figure out a way to make the magic internet business model where you can produce little substance and have people throw money at you al la twitter, all the while not actually producing anything.

6. glendon - October 13, 2009 at 05:55 pm

Excellent article about the positives and negatives about open educational resources. There are a number of steps that need to be taken to help the open education movement floursish. A few primary goals include:

-Establish a strong business model that can create enough capital to maintain and grow the service

-Create incentives for students, educators, and academic institutions to use the system. There has to be real rewards for each of these groups to participate.

-Decrease risk for students, educators, and institutions. Cut real costs, so that the platform they utilize contributes to their bottom line.

We are in the process of testing out a platform that takes these steps at www.nixty.com. If you are interested in being a part of the solution, then sign up for our beta. We'd love to have you join us!

7. susanekg1 - October 14, 2009 at 04:03 pm

The open courseware movement will succeed when it merges with the open source textbook movement, adopts uniform standards of evaluation, and we start including superior multimedia content, especially in the form of primary documents. Then institutions will see how much sense it makes to save students tons of money by replacing overweight, environmentally irresponsible and intellectually deadening textbooks with visually appealing and easy-to-read multimedia courseware. Let's make maximum use of materials in the public domain, and quit enriching publishing conglomerates, by persuading university presses to take on the task of formally publishing peer-reviewed content-rich resources for college-level teaching, especially in the social sciences and humanities. And let's show public officals how big a payoff the public would enjoy if we invested a relative pittance into creating digital libraries of college-level curricular materials that could be shared by teachers and students across the globe. The short of it is that we need to redirect funding away from corporations and put it into the hands of librarians, faculty, and technical experts at public institutions, kind of like a public option for higher ed.

8. 22028784 - October 14, 2009 at 04:28 pm

DRJ50 has it right. People have been able to study with the best professors for years through books and articles. Online course materials are not courses, they are multimedia books and articles. They should not be confounded with courses. I should no more receive a degree from MIT from viewing these course materials than I should receive one from studying the books that MIT professors have written.

9. stevenhcooper - October 14, 2009 at 10:22 pm


10. laoshi - October 15, 2009 at 02:21 am

The real benefit is knowledge. Knowledge is power. The marketing model of free lectures makes the most sense.

Just having free lectures, without credit, is beneficial to society. If people get excited about learning, whilst learning, they are more likely to matriculate into for-credit programs. They will be more prepared to handle academic life, from tackling these free lectures and courses beforehand. And even if they don't enroll in a for-credit institution, they will continue to participate in their communities and workplaces with more educated perspectives.

11. ianlamont - October 15, 2009 at 02:42 pm

The author of this article neglected to address one of the primary reasons why MIT does not grant credit for open online courses: There is little interactivity or discourse with faculty and other students. MIT's OpenCourseWare FAQ makes a point of distinguishing between publishing course materials online and providing an education, stating "MIT OpenCourseWare does not offer users the opportunity for direct contact with MIT faculty. It provides the content of -- but is not a substitute for -- an MIT education."

If MIT doesn't consider OCW a substitute for an education, why would any other school offering similar open content consider granting credit? For that matter, how can universities which promote paid, for-credit online courses with only limited faculty/student interaction claim that they are the equivalent of traditional face-to-face classroom debate, inquiry, and discourse?

Ian Lamont

12. derekbruff - October 16, 2009 at 02:59 pm

I'm with Ian on this one (more or less). There's a lot more to the learning experience in a college class than attending lectures. There's the interaction between student and teacher as well as the interaction among students. There's also the feedback that students receive on their work along the way as they test their knowledge. None of that is provided in free lecture videos.

Not that free lecture videos don't have their place. I think the article does a great job of describing their benefits. But I'm not comfortable with the assumption that lectures plus certification equals education. Sure, some students can watch lectures and pass some tests, but most students benefit from a richer set of interactions.

13. openworld - November 02, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Good luck to universities that retreat from online learning.

Free and near-free on-demand learning resources will increasingly surround students and jobseekers because of the following trends:

1. Ubiquitous, low cost systems for audio and video recording and sharing of lectures;

2. Contests to generate eLearning resources, with students vying to build reputation by creating highly-rated materials (and/or by providing online tutoring services enable others to gain skills);

3. The spread of Brainbench-style "spot check" systems for deterring cheaters in online exams;

4. Expansion of profitable system of creating thousands of free educational videos (see the Wired article on successful firm that hires global freelancers to create free eLessons - http://j.mp/hwm8U ); and

5. Emergence of microscholarship initiatives in poor areas (building on micro-lending precedents) to help tens of millions of learners access online courses and certification resources. Communities can endow such grassroots initiatives with land grants to sustain global learning linkages as noted at at www.openworld.com and www.entrepreneurialschools.com.

If North American universities fail to respond to these trends, they will forfeit immense markets as well as opportunities to build their endowments through new global land grant partnerships. World-class Indian, Chinese and other universities will then have their opening to disrupt complacent higher education institutions here as thoroughly as they have done in other IT-enabled services and in manufacturing.

Mark Frazier
@openworld (twitter)

14. 11272784 - November 03, 2009 at 06:40 pm

Colleges and universities haven't awakened to the fact that there are plenty of great courses in other places. Residency requirements and course transfer issues are really power plays by departments and institutions that don't want to confess that other courses are as good as theirs. I'm one of those working to chip away at this - but the more courses deviate from models that institutions are familiar with, the less likely they are to count towards degrees.

Bottom line: caveat emptor. If you're going to take courses, YOU are responsible for making sure they add up to something!

15. joelkline - December 27, 2009 at 11:20 am

It should be noted in this debate/discussion that OCW and Distance Learning are not the same thing. A few OCW proponents seem to assert that OCW failures mean colleges are failing at distance learning. This is false. You can be a school with a solid distance learning program and not be remotely interested in OCW.

Some posters seem to assert that OCW will make distance learning inexpensive. This is also false. Look at the statistics of which schools garner the most online students - for-profit ventures with much higher costs than non-profit schools. OCW will not change this (because the consumer wants a degree).

Most of us in academia believe that OCW has a lot of value (me included). But I do not confuse this value with what the average consumer wants out of college. I agree with previous posters that college is something more than lectures, notes, and textbook assignments. Finally, I think the idea of extending the Open Source software model to education to make "everything free" is a pipe-dream. The OS model might work for software, which is essentially product, but it cannot be applied to education, which is a process, not a product.

16. manmalik - December 27, 2009 at 05:50 pm

Open Educational Resources need to be easy to find, re-use, repurpose for it to become useful for local and global audiences.

I have been a part of the JISC OER project with the engineering subject centre.

As part of the above project we are planning to link the resources that I am contributing, release an open access website where students or staff can use utilise the OER for the purpose of their informal learning activities.

This I have called Examopedia, based on the famous site Wikipedia.

There is now a version of this site that i have launched that is free for all students anywhere in the world to use and prepare for their exams/study.

I have blogged about this site (http://sites.google.com/site/myexamopedia) on my blog found at http://edublend.blogspot.com/2009/12/examopedia-for-all-students.html

I was also awarded a National Teaching Award for my work.

17. paievoli - January 07, 2010 at 07:37 am

You have to have alternative revenue streams. Very simple solution. Please visit my blog and see.

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