Free Online Courses, at a Very High Price

Online students want credit; colleges want a working business model

Originally published October 11, 2009 at


LANCASTER, PA. — 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 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s