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College Lectures Should Be Free Online, Argues ‘Wired Magazine’ Editor in New Book

College lectures are one of the many information products that should be free to all online, according to Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine, in his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Mr. Anderson praises the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities for giving away course materials, though he does not advocate making tuition free. “A college education is more than lectures and readings,” he writes. “For universities, free content is marketing. Top students get their pick of schools. Sampling the mind-blowing fare of a particular program or professor can win them over.”

Free lectures can be even bigger wins for professors than for their institutions, he argues, giving the example of Richard A. Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. The professor’s lectures on “Physics for Future Presidents” became a hit on YouTube, scoring some two million views, which Mr. Anderson suggests helped the professor land a book contract.

Though Mr. Anderson is hardly the first person to praise free lectures online, he fits it into a broader argument that such radical pricing of information is pretty much inevitable. His theory is that the Internet makes information so easy to distribute (and to pirate) that the best business response is to make it free and find some ancillary service to sell instead. “If software is free, sell support,” he writes. “If phone calls are free, sell distant labor and talent that can be reached by those free calls (the Indian outsourcing model in a nutshell).”

Textbook publishers may not welcome the argument. Though Mr. Anderson does not talk about textbooks directly, they are online and full of information, and students are starting to pirate them.

Appropriately, Mr. Anderson is giving away his book online, though he charges for a printed copy, and levies hefty speaking fees if you want to bring him to your campus to talk about it.

The author Malcolm Gladwell is among those who don’t buy the argument. “Why is it a law?” Mr. Gladwell writes in a review of Free in this week’s New Yorker. “Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power.”

“The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about,” Mr. Gladwell concludes. “The digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws.”

That uncertainty should give university researchers plenty to study and teach about, whether they give their information away or not. —Jeffrey R. Young

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