Free Online Education and What This Means for “College”

MIT recently announced that they are offering certificates for select courses through their OpenCourseWare platform. This is, of course, an inevitable development in the rise of increasingly organized, formalized, and freely available, courses, now that Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA have jumped on board the uncollege train.

At this point, I’d like to drop the obligatory, and geographically appropriate, Good Will Hunting quote:

“See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinking on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library”

While a person with a little intelligence, determination, and internet access, may now be able to get a great education for free or little cost, the question remains: What will employers think of all of this, and how does it change the traditional college experience, if at all?

At some point in my sophomore year, I found myself ranting to one of the wisest people I know, about the incredible unfairness, administrative conspiracy, bureaucracy, and pointless rulings against the students at Olin College. This person nodded, smiled, listened, provided insight based on his own experiences at the University of Utah in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and said something to the effect of: “College isn’t just about showing that you know calculus and physics, it’s about showing that you can cope with the stress, regulation, and environment for four years without quitting”

There’s a large amount of truth to this. With US six year graduation rates (the percent of students who graduate from a four year bachelors program within six years) at about 55%, and three year associates rates at 29%, surviving a program certainly says something. Marine basic training wouldn’t quite be the same as an exercise regimen you could complete at home on your own schedule.

Forget graduation even — matriculating at many institutions alone may give employers pause. I suspect that the ability to demonstrate achievement, aptitude, and passion at age 17 is strongly correlated with the ability to succeed in the workforce at age 27.

But the irreplaceability of college as a character-building life experience, and demonstration of self-worth and integrity is a conveniently “Cambridge ivory tower” way of looking at things. The 30 year old taking computing classes at the local community college to buff up her resume doesn’t give a rodent’s bum about lifelong friends and memories of his two evenings a week alma mater, and his employer probably cares as much about the brandname “ACME Community College” on a CV. A prime candidate for free online certificates, and a great example of where this sort of thing could be great.

On the flip side, a 16 year old student in a rural or suburban area may not have access to some of the advanced subjects needed to get a leg up in the admissions process. The existence of OpenCourseWare may not stop him from going to college, but its non-existence might.

Using online certificate programs and courses as a supplement or preparation for college, rather than as a “college replacement,” will likely be the main use of these programs. Although I don’t have access to any of the data, I would wager that most of the viewers of these lectures have, or are working towards, a college degree. MIT itself uses OpenCourseWare as a supplementary tool for classes — part of the main motivating factor for its creation.

There is no doubt that OpenCourseWare certificates will increase the amount of knowledge and education circulating around in the world, and the credibility of online programs in general (after all, “MIT” sounds somehow more legit than “University of Phoenix”), but this will likely be in supplement to traditional colleges, or in lieu of shorter programs / individual classes / resume-building activities, that might have been done at a traditional college.

Honestly though, some small part of me is really looking forward to getting proven wrong 🙂


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