Free courses may shake universities’ monopoly

Free or cheap online courses may shake universities’ monopoly on credentials, writes the Hechinger Report.

“If I were the universities, I might be a little nervous,” said Alana Harrington, director of, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit established by entrepreneur Michael Saylor that offers 200 free online college courses in 12 majors.

Among other similar initiatives are Peer-to-Peer University, or P2PU, which also offers free online courses and is supported by the web-browser company Mozilla and the Hewlett Foundation, and University of the People, which charges $10 to $50 for any of more than 40 online courses, and whose backers include the Clinton Global Initiative. Both are also nonprofits.

The content they use comes from top universities, including MIT, Tufts, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Those are among some 250 institutions worldwide that have put a collective 15,000 courses online in what has become known as the open-courseware movement.

Traditional colleges and universities are reluctant to accept transfer credits from these programs, claiming they can’t judge the courses’ quality.

“Libraries are free, too,” says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “You can roam around, read books and study. But hardly anyone would say that spending time in the library is a good preparation to work in any economy, much less this one.”

Traditional colleges deny academic credit to squelch competition, said Philipp Schmidt, cofounder and executive director of P2PU.

Debbie Arthur, who’s taking StraighterLine courses with hopes of earning an education degree, says most university classes don’t offer more personal contact than online classes.

“The Pollyanna version of college is that you’re learning and discussing things with your professors,” said Arthur, a custom-jewelry maker who lives in Kingsport, Tenn. “The reality is that you have 450 kids in an auditorium listening to a teaching assistant. They’ve killed the golden goose themselves by being greedy, and I think people have started looking really closely at alternatives.”

After 160,000 people worldwide signed up for his free, online class on artificial intelligence, Sebastian Thrun quit his job as a Stanford computer science professor to fund Udacity, a free online university. It’s a udacious idea.

Students will be able to take tests to show mastery of critical thinking skills, writes Jeffrey Selingo. That will help the alternatively certified to compete for jobs with people who’ve spent four (or more) costly years pursuing a bachelor’s degree, adds Richard Vedder.

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Boyd Carter

Thanks for an interesting and informative post about free online courses. Speaking of “alternatively certified), MIT seems to be leading the way with MITx, a new initiative that gives a certificate of completion when the course is completed.

No certification, but MIT’s OpenCourseware initiative is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. Under the OpenCourseware banner, many other top universities offer free online courses.

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