A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Online Courses: Free, but Oh, So Costly,” by Marc Parry, looks at the high cost to universities of providing free online courses.
Free can be very expensive. Every course MIT publishes costs $10,000 to $15,000, roughly double for those with video. The money pays for back-end stuff users never see: Content collection. Reformatting. Intellectual-property vetting.
So how do you keep the lights on when foundation grants run out?
Lower production costs, some respond. Ms. Casserly tells the story of a Korean university where students competed to produce open lecture notes. The prize was an iPod and lunch with the university president.
But student scribblers aren’t a realistic solution for a juggernaut like MIT OpenCourseWare, with its 1.3 million monthly visits and $3.7-million annual budget. MIT is banking on NPR-style fund raising. This was its recent e-mail appeal: “Though MIT will continue to support about half the cost of the program, our challenge is to offset the loss of grant funding with substantial increases in corporate sponsorships, major gifts, and donations from site visitors and supporters.”
Carnegie Mellon is trying a different model. When its courses are good enough, with other colleges assigning them as e-textbooks, it asks students to pay a fee as low as $15, says Joel M. Smith, vice provost. “That would be a very, very, very cheap textbook,” he says. “If it were used by a large number of colleges and universities, it could sustain the project.”
Yale has no ambition to award credit for the free online courses at the moment, says Ms. Lorimer, citing the “additional burdens” for professors. Sustainability options include university or foundation support, plus commercial partnerships. Corporate sponsorships are now common for museum exhibits, she notes.
Universities — like dead-tree newspapers — are looking for a costing model for online content. And, as with newspapers, some observers are not optimistic about the future.
More free programs may run aground. So argues David Wiley, open education’s Everywhere Man, who set up the Utah venture and is now an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. A newspaper once likened him to Nostradamus for claiming that universities risked irrelevance by 2020. The education oracle offers another prophecy for open courseware. “Every OCW initiative at a university that does not offer distance courses for credit,” he has blogged, “will be dead by the end of calendar 2012.”
In other words: Nice knowing you, MIT OpenCourseWare. So long, Open Yale Courses.
“I think the economics of open courseware the way we’ve been doing it for the last almost decade have been sort of wrong,” Mr. Wiley tells The Chronicle. Projects aimed for “the world,” not bread-and-butter clientele like alumni and students. “Because it’s not connected to any of our core constituencies, those programs haven’t been funded with core funding. And so, in a climate where the economy gets bad and foundation funding slows, then that’s a critical juncture for the movement.”
In this short video, Parry talks to Steve Ziegler about his online coursework at Yale and MIT.
Parry asks Ziegler “how a high-school dropout with three kids and a stressful job ended up studying literature at Yale and biology at MIT?”