Open Source Education

What if education was free? The open source movement has transformed the way we think about software and for many years I’ve pondered the possibility of open source education. The seeds of the idea have begun to sprout hopefully to grow on to maturity.

Weighing the cost of the current education system

Everyone knows college tuition costs have been skyrocketing. There are many potential reasons why, but I think there is a more fundamental question can be asked. Does the value received match the cost?

The average price of a 4 year degree is somewhere around $100,000. The average high school graduate earns about 30k, the average 4 year college grad about 50k. That’s 5 years to break even, plus another 2 on student loan interest, plus the 4 years spent in school and we haven’t considered room and board or potential tax differences.

Are these investment numbers most businesses would be happy with? What happens as these numbers continue to skyrocket?

The value of a degree

Employers regularly screen applicants based on degree requirements making the above costs necessary. But what is a degree? It holds no intrinsic value – only the value inferred upon it for what it represents: a certified seal that the holder is knowledgeable in a given area. Yet the extent to which that is true may be questionable. A degree may increasingly say nothing about experience, work ethic, or ability to perform in the real world.

College degrees are the only easy way of measurement an employer has available. If an alternative existed and could gain momentum, employers would take note. If a large number of people pursued education outside of a traditional college model employers might be forced to throw out the degree benchmark and evaluate in new ways.

Traditional educational institutions: An outdated model

Universities have been around for centuries and they still look largely the same today. The Internet and the Information Age have given birth to a new world. Decentralization and specialization are the name of the game today – the opposite of standardized, centralized Universities.

Open source education

Enter the open source model I foresee. Technology makes it possible to sit at the feet and learn from experts the world over. Materials are easy to distribute and the quantity endless. The mode of learning can be varied that the student may choose the means he/she learns best.

Its all beginning to happen. MIT is among those leading the way. They began releasing free course materials in 2002 and in 2005 began the OpenCourseWare Consortium a partnership of now over 50 contributing institutions.

I will follow up with additional posts to discuss more specific details of how open source education might work, practical ideas, and to look at the objections and problems to be overcome.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts and questions on the matter – especially what you see as the obstacles that would hold you back from taking advantage of such a system.

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6 Responses to Open Source Education

  1. Grace says:

    Of course free education would be nice…or at east there should be a limit on how much it costs…like $3,000 a year instead of 30,000 (like most private colleges/universities) .

  2. Adrienne says:

    I’m going to refer Chris to your article here. Not too long ago he got into a rather intense discussion with my parents about this very subject (they are both in the medical profession). To sort of piggyback on what you are saying here, an additional problem to the higher education model we currently have is the state licensure that is currently required of so many professions. Not to mention the fact that the AMA and medical schools place artificial quotas on how many doctors can enter the medical field each year. Thanks for bringing this subject up for discussion!

  3. bchallies says:

    Interesting, Rick…Have never thought of an option to the tried, true, and oh-so-expensive standardized programs.

  4. Yes. This is interesting. I read an article recently about the pride students take in their books. The article stated that even in Ivy schools, many students were still not as interested in downloadable books, because they liked the physical book. Something to touch and feel and see…

    I don’t know. Interesting disussion!

  5. Ben Hoyt says:

    Tantalizing start, Rick. Looking forward to the additional posts.

    I don’t disagree about the limited value of a degree, and that education is broken as-is. My only thought is that it’s really the quality of the teachers that make (or break) education, not so much the course material.

  6. Micah Green says:

    …so, I’ve already confessed to Rick my sin (he calls it the cardinal sin) of reading blog posts without commenting. I figured it was probably time to fully repent by posting.

    Those are some great thoughts Rick! We have had these discussions before, but it is good to hear some other points that we have never addressed.

    I work for the online arm of a Christian university (Liberty University), so my thoughts on education might be somewhat biased, but one concern that I had before being employed in higher ed was that of accreditation. Organizations that provide accreditation (and program-specific licensure) ensure that the education received by the student is academically rigorous and that it adequately prepares the student for a career in their intended field. Of course, these organizations have operating budgets (and admittedly the fees involved with accreditation and licensure are sometimes designed to thin out the field of candidates), and those costs are ultimately borne by the student. Furthermore, those professors and administrators cannot work for free…

    Another issue regarding the cost of education (at least in the US) is that of federal financial aid. While the original intent of the Stafford Loan and Pell Grant programs were good, they in effect created a government-driven system of price supports. Federal funding (from taxpayers, of course) flooded into schools, and those schools were able to raise tuition; after all, the up-front cost to the student was much less (if anything) than before those programs began. The same price inflation occurred in the textbook publishing industry. I sometimes hesitate to make blanket statements or judgments, but I have to wonder if the typical college freshman would be as nonchalant about choosing a degree or institution if they had to finance their education the old-fashioned way (working to pay-as-they-went, etc.) as opposed to filling out a form and finding out how many thousands of dollars they had available in either grants or loans. The long-term effect is that today’s Bachelor’s Degree is viewed with the same value as a High School degree when my parents entered the workforce: You can get a job without it, but your prospects of quality employment are much less optimistic on the whole.

    I think all of that leads us to the topsy-turvy tuition-to-income ratios that we see so often. If you want to get a degree in a field that you love and know that you will not be making that much, then go for it! Life is too short to do something you hate. However, having recently moved from a college town (Athens, Georgia), I knew too many people with degrees in English that cost just as much as a Management of Information Systems (MIS) degree, but were far less lucrative.

    Of course, I (as you might guess) advocate a third option: online education. My institution is blessed in that we have a brick-and-mortar campus and it is accredited, but students have the option of taking online classes (at a reduced rate in some cases). It is interesting to point out that some of our degrees require the student to come to campus for a set of residential intensive classes. Why? In some cases, we must include a residential component for licensure or accreditation purposes, but most often, it is because the professor wants to have that old-fashioned face-to-face interaction before they give the final stamp of approval to the student. After all, would you really want a teacher or counselor who never had to interact with anyone during the course of their education? As Rick pointed out, online education is much more efficient than its residential-based counterpart, but I see there always being a need for that face-to-face interaction, even if that interaction counts for a small portion of the total degree hours. Additionally, most schools now offer some or all of the lectures in selected courses online. Many courses are available on iTunesU. In fact, Rick and I are going through a course now (well, not so much going through the course as Rick is going through it and I am struggling to keep up).

    Finally, another issue that I see at play here is the inability of secondary schools to adequately prepare students for success-not only in college, but in the “real world” as well. I see the areas of character development and critical thinking as being fundamental to success in all of life, and as a manager it is those qualities that I find most often deficient in new employees-particularly those of the younger generation. Obviously, teaching those things is not the sole responsibility of the secondary school, but I do think they need to be taught and addressed.

    Well, that was a lot more than I intended to write, but this post really got me thinking! Definitely a great read!

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