Higher Education for Free – Part II

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Before the Christmas break, I wrote a piece called “Higher Education for Free” (December 23, 2011). This week I am providing a “Part Deux” due to emerging news and conversations on the topic.

This week, Apple announced two important announcements. First, an expansion of their iTunes U, which provides not only courses from higher education institutions around the world, but full courses. Second, the expansion of iBooks for textbooks.

These two innovations build upon our prior news of MIT opening its course content to the masses, giving people who complete MIT online courses an option of getting full course credit for their effort.

In the past few days, critics have crawled out of the woodwork to complain how Apple will be bad for higher education. As one critic noted, this is not Apple’s humanitarian interest in expanding education to the masses, but rather, to sell more iPads. Others suggest that this will only weaken the “higher education brand” for institutions and we will continue to water down the pristine ivory towers of postsecondary education.

This past week, EPI hosted its Executive Institute on Student Success in Scottsdale, Arizona. Former Congressman and CSU-Monterey Bay Founding President Peter Smith (now of Kaplan Higher Education) discussed the potential of “badging” in higher education. This is the practice where students will essentially receive a statement of competency acquired in a particular course. This is not necessarily the same as gaining course “credit,” but it begins to eat away at the necessity of certain course work and may pave the way for redefining the structure of the higher education “degree.”

Put this in perspective from our prior discussion of MIT’s free courseware. If a student completes the MIT course in good standing, for a basic fee they can be evaluated (tests and other assessments) to document their knowledge and grasp of the course content. MIT charges $100 (or so I’ve heard) for the assessment and that’s all they get from it.

How does this make economic sense?

Think of it this way. If College A designed an introduction course in Economics, and the course is full in terms of seats, why not give away online access to their course? For content, there is no real cost to the institution for this information. Sure, other institutions could “steal” content, but almost all professors steal content to a degree. That’s how we create syllabi. We use textbooks and see what others have done at our university or others. The only thing that really costs is assessment, whether grading of papers, tests, or perhaps some other authentic style of assessment (e.g., portfolio reviews; classroom observation).

So why not just charge for these services? If the person pays a reasonable amount (let’s say $100) and they pass the assessment(s), then should they not be able to receive course credit for completion? I think so.

Of course, a student using this method would probably stumble into the arcane world of accreditation and articulation. What courses would be suitable for degree program X? This isn’t rocket science, but states have been very slow in creating decent articulation agreements around course and degree articulation from college to college; sector to sector. We see this often in transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions.

Still, the news from Apple should be applauded. More higher education. Greater access. Lower cost. In both courses and textbooks. The new addition to iBooks will bring the cost of many texts down to $14.99, versus the $75 plus for an average textbook (and, as a parent of a college freshman, I’ve already paid over $200 for a single book!). The new designs on textbooks will provide integrated and seamless technology, allowing students not only to read information, but also the opportunity to view videos, link to websites, and chat (apparently) about the concepts.

For those luddites who don’t quite see how technology can foster learning, we are only now starting to see a true representation of the potential of web-based technologies in opening up college opportunity for the masses. In the history of US higher education, there are certain events that truly massified higher education. First was the Morrill Act of 1962 (land grant institutions). Second was the Morrill Act II (HBCUs and other institutions). Third was the GI Bill (1944). Fourth was the Pell Grant (BEOG; 1972). Perhaps this is the Fifth Wave of serious revolution in higher education.

If we ever believed that the private and protected doors of higher education could be broken down, these new efforts by MIT and Apple have the greatest opportunity to do so. But only if legislation and public policy follows swiftly to ensure that we have articulation agreements to allow for a more open acceptance of courses and degrees.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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