Open content and the future of education

A lot of colleges and universities, big and small, are putting content online for free these days. Not long back, this meant teasers of various sorts, but, of late, more and more players–especially some of the big name institutions, are putting entire courses online. And, these day’s it’s often not just introductory courses. There’s quite a bit of higher-level stuff out there. Yale’s Open Yale Courses site is a good example. There are several full-length courses in each of a dozen or so categories. There are enough schools doing it these days that other sites, like Academic Earth, have popped up just to aggregate the free materials that are out there. If you use iTunes, Apple’s iTunes U provides a nice interface to a lot of what’s available.

If you have any autodidactic tendencies, happen to be bedridden, are a shut-in or an unapologetic misanthrope, this must be the best of all possible worlds. But even for the more-or-less well adjusted knowledge junkie, this is a real find. We live in a time of plentiful information and infotainment, but a lot of what’s out there for free isn’t really worth your time. There’s a lot of surface, but not much depth. A lot of the content on the web is like an infinite magazine rack. And, just as in the real world, the US Weekly and People-grade fluff occupies more space than the more substantive fare.

At first, you might rightly wonder “what’s their angle?” And, while there’s a try-before-you-buy marketing component, that alone wouldn’t justify the time and expense it takes to capture and render the content, much less the work that goes into organizing and maintaining in some sort of content management system and the bandwidth costs that go along with that. I think you have to chalk it up, at least in good measure, to one of those ideas that’s so old-fashioned it will almost feel corny when I type it: the public good.

The first mission of higher education, after all, is to teach people. It can be easy to lose sight of that, sometimes, with all the bureaucracy and politics that go along with it. Colleges these days are often run a lot like businesses. And, while there’s certainly common ground between the two (you gotta keep the heat on somehow), educational institutions worth their salt have higher aspirations than the bottom line. Teaching at its best aspires to make the world a better place by creating a better informed and more thoughtful public, one student at a time. Educational institutions, at their best, are simply the necessary infrastructure that enables good teaching.

I suspect a lot of institutions who are not yet in this game resist because they don’t see how they can profit from giving things away. But they have little to worry about on that score. Even if you could watch an entire degree programs’ worth of video lectures, there’d still be no transcript to point to and no degree on your wall, unless you pony up for online classes, submit work for evaluation, and pay your tuition. That’s fine, I think. If all you want is the knowledge, it’s there for the taking. If you need a credential to move down a career path, there are more options for that than every before. Either way, I welcome it.

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