Thursday, February 4, 2010

Free education can be profitable

There are mountains of free educational resources out there for anyone to use for their own development via OER Commons, Wikiversity, OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, Academic Earth etc. Free and open higher education is now available from the fledgling University of the People and Peer 2 Peer University though in a very limited form so far. This seems to threaten the academic mainstream but can the established universities actually benefit from adapting to the wave of openness?

Several universities are now experimenting with a concept which only recently would have been considered sheer madness; letting students participate in courses for free. An article in Ars Technica, University finds free online classes don't hurt enrollment, reports on a study carried out by Brigham Young University indicating that their free courses actually help to recruit new students. BYU (BYU Independent Study) offer a limited selection of online courses free in the hope that having tried them students would be tempted to sign up for the "real thing". This seems to hold true and even if many free students never become paying customers the general feeling seems to be that the university gains so much positive publicity by opening up their material that the scheme pays its way.

According to David Wiley of BYU (in an article in Wired Campus) the study was:
"the first piece of empirical work I am aware of that demonstrates clearly that a distance-learning program can simultaneously (1) provide a significant public good by publishing open courseware and (2) be revenue positive while doing it."

Universities openly publishing their course material and lectures also see a massive surge in interest from all over the world as Open University and MIT clearly show. Millions of people now regularly view free lectures and whole courses from top universities via iTunes U or universities' own YouTube channels and reputation for good content travels fast. Although American universities have been highly prominent on this front it's not simply a western phenomenon; see, for example, the Virtual University of Pakistan's YouTube channel.

It seems that maybe you can have your cake and eat it. By putting material on the net you contribute greatly to informal learning all over the world, helping to build your reputation for quality. But those in search of qualifications and the guidance of the university's teachers will still be willing to sign up for the full university experience. The one does not necessarily threaten the other.


  1. You make some questionable statements in this post.

    1. What evidence do you have that "the academic mainstream is threatened" by UOTP and P2P -glorified tutoring sites run by volunteers?

    2. Why do you call tossing some materials on the web with no faculty interaction or credit granted "courses?" And then go on to say that "only recently this would have been considered sheer madness?" It's called "advertising," and as you noted, it is often successful at bringing in new customers. It's hardly "open education," though, unless your definition of "open education" is materials tossed on the web for people to read on their own and receive no credit for. I don't see how this is such a radical action, just a new way of advertising. But maybe I'm missing something.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. Dear L
    Thanks for your comments. Of course there's a big element of advertising involved (education is business today) but at the same time I like the idea that the material being offered is a great resource for informal learning and I believe that this will become a major feature of our future.
    1. I can't quote chapter and verse on this but I hear many people who criticise and dismiss P2PU etc and I get the feeling that it threatens a lot of very deep-set values about education.
    2. I have in previous articles given examples of open courses that are far from being "thrown together", for example George Siemens and Stephen Downes course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge at the University of Manitoba,
    Otago Technical University have also offered open courses with successful results (see Leigh Blackall's work.

  4. Those who criticize and dismiss P2P probably think there's merit in having someone who actually knows the subject dispensing that knowledge instead of a crowd sitting around talking about it. Not that P2P doesn't have merit, but I don't see where a glorified tutoring and social networking site run by volunteers is anything mainstream academia is "threatened" about.

    As for the success of open courses, I'm sure many people have benefited from downloading the material. Otherwise, what is your definition of success? Number of downloads? People will grab anything marked "free." Number of eyeballs? Nice (I suppose), but I'm not convinced that translates to "you'll be known for quality." No, you'll be known for giving free stuff. Number of students enrolling due to the open courseware? Now we're cooking ...but is that what you mean by success of open courseware? I see that as success of a new advertising model -one that brings students to the old school.

  5. University of the People (UoPeople) is the world’s first tuition free online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education. The high-quality low-cost global educational model embraces the worldwide presence of the Internet and dropping technology costs to bring university level studies within reach of millions of people across the world.

    To learn more about UoPeople we invite you to follow us on Facebook:
    And Twitter:

  6. What, specifically, makes UoPeople "high quality?"

  7. There is a lot of high quality material (by respected professors at top universities) available on for example iTunes U and Academic Earth. I am impressed by the material produced by Open University in particular. Teachers at many universities are now able to suggest playlists of good lectures from other universities as input to seminars, as they would before have provided reading lists. The key to using OER is that some qualified person (ie teacher) has to be available to provide context and stimulate discussion.
    If UoP use those resources and are able to provide students with a teacher/mentor who can moderate discussion and guide students to a wise use of these resources I'm sure that they can provide worthwhile education. I would never claim that UoP and P2PU can offer anything like the equivalent of a full campus degree but for many people in the world it can be an affordable alternative and at least give them an opportunity to learn. There are many researchers and professors committed to the OER movement who genuinely believe that education can reach out to more than just those able to attend regular university courses. It's not simply a marketing ploy.

  8. Hi Alastair, I'm aware that high-quality free and open content is available in various places. That's not what I asked, though. I asked what makes UofPeople high-quality. Is it the fact that its volunteers utilize this material?

    I ask because you originally stated that mainstream academia feels threatened by UoPeople. I still don't see what's threatening about it. It appears to be "education charity" to developing nations. A nice idea and certainly commendable, but nothing that a real U has to worry about. JMO (and what do I know).

  9. L
    Checked through what I wrote and see that the high quality statement on UoP was from them so you'd better ask them directly (I admit their comment is not a bona fide blog comment).
    UoP and P2PU are just two examples of the disruptive use of the social web and I'm sure there will be more to come. The reactions from many in mainstream education (in my experience I stress) is either to dismiss it all as irrelevant or academically unsound. This attitude misses the point I feel. Cannot universities look at what these innovators are trying to do and learn from that. Maybe we need different tiers to education from the formal structures of campus academia to more informal collaborative learning. Most learning takes place informally (I haven't attended a course for years and I learn new things every day as you do).
    Maybe you see the word threaten as too strong and I can concede that (I wrote "seem to threaten"). Maybe challenge would be more appropriate. We may differ here but I appreciate your comments on my otherwise fairly comment-free blog :-)

  10. I once looked up that site, and had hoped for more, but currently am looking for material for a more dynamic audience, because I live in rural MN, and have a wide spectrum of student ability (in my high school math classes). My running theme has been differentiation (and redefining it).