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Can Higher Education Be Open Sourced? May 31, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Open sourced isn’t the right term, but rather, can higher education be both freely available and free?  Such a possibility would be highly disruptive, but would have the potential to virtually eliminate student debt, and make higher education more relevant and timely to society’s needs.

That’s what this article claims.  Rather than spend four expense years on a college campus, it advocates a combination of structured (more or less) online educational resources with practical work experience.  It would be largely free, and possibly even paid for the work experience.

In 2010 I was at a talk given by Clayton Christensen, who talked in large part about disruptive processes.  He noted that disruption usually comes in at the low end, and gradually works its way up the value chain until it subsumes the standard of the past.

He used education as an example where this process was currently happening.  No one would accuse an online school as having the reputation or quality of a Harvard.  So online schools serve a different audience, and a different purpose.  They provide largely career-oriented education to non-traditional students who lack the time or schedule to commit to an in-person education.

Clearly, traditional colleges and universities don’t see that as their core market, and may willingly cede that function to a low-cost provider.  But it’s likely online education with improve substantially in a few short years, and begin to offer low-cost alternatives for the next tier of student.  And so it goes, until traditional higher education still has the costs, but no market willing to pay them.

Traditional higher education promotes expertise, active research, and classroom interaction as some of the advantages of its approach.  As an 18-year old (30+ years ago), I believe that on-campus higher education helped me make the first tentative steps from a very small world to a much larger one.  However, I was a somewhat special case, in that I was the first of my generation not only to go to college, but also to leave the immediate vicinity.  Today, for most youth, is that initial transition worth taking on a six-figure debt?  I don’t think so.

I think the article vastly oversimplifies the process by which “open source” education can come to take over from a more traditional and formal educational environment, but that said, it’s an intriguing model that is likely to work in some capacity in the future.

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