Free education for everyone

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 11.18.40 AM
Image from Katy Jordan's MOOC Project

The problem

Higher education in the United States is overpriced and plagued by ever-increasing costs—and the government funding that makes it so widely available is perpetually endangered. What's more, the very best professors at colleges and universities around the country are limited to teaching a few hundred students at a time, at the most. There's a real danger, therefore, of a good college education becoming the province of an elite, wealthy few.

The solution

The Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, puts courses from top universities and professors online and makes them available to any number of students—sometimes hundreds of thousands at a time—for free. MOOCs address the money problems by being more scalable and less expensive to deliver than campus-based courses. They give professors access to a wider variety of students by an order of magnitude. And students get to take them for free.


So anyone with a reasonable internet connection—whether rich or poor, fat or skinny, elite or hoi polloi, American or from somewhere else— can sign up and take one and change his future.


Companies offering free online courses for anyone must be driven by some lofty ideals. Here's the "Vision" blurb for Coursera, the MOOC company that gets the most press:

We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Let's hear from Udacity, another prominent MOOC pioneer:

Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers...

...We are reinventing education for the 21st century by bridging the gap between real-world skills, relevant education, and employment. Our students will be fluent in new technology, modern mathematics, science, and critical thinking. They will marry skills with creativity and humanity to learn, think, and do. Udacians are curious and engaged world citizens.

Curious and engaged world citizens finally enabled to learn without limits. Basic human rights. Millions of students. Improving lives. Reinventing education. Partners. Fluent.


Thomas Friedman, globalization meathead extraordinaire, gushed:

Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.


If you have high-minded ideals about giving away free coffee, you still need three bucks to buy that latté you want to give away. Same goes for high-minded software companies.

Coursera recently raised $43 million from a crew of venture capitalists and investors, bringing their total funding, as of this writing, to $65 million. Venture dollars fuel most of the rest of the MOOC "space", too: Instructure includes a MOOC-hosting platform as one of its services, which it developed with the help of $39.1 million; Udacity does what Coursera does, and is in hock for a comparatively modest $20 million. EdX, FutureLearn, and any of a half-dozen other entities looking to get into MOOCs are similarly propped-up by massive investments from universities, private individuals, and other investors.

All that money for companies that give away their core product.

However much they might have signed on to the lofty ideals, the VC's aren't looking to write off those millions as charitable donations on their taxes. Business plans of some sort are in order. Here's how these companies have contemplated making money from free online courses for anyone:

  • Charging fees for certificates when a student completes a course
  • Headhunting for companies (the Udacity idea)
  • Selling advanced data to complement the headhunting
  • Lead generation for other online learning programs (for students who drop out of the MOOC)
  • "The companies could potentially make money providing—or outsourcing—library resources, tutoring services, and other accouterments of collegiate academic life"
  • Assessment of coursework by accomplished peers
  • "Selective networking opportunities": conferences, meetups, lectures, etc. offered only to top-achieving MOOC students

How's free education for anyone adding up?

The jury is still way out as to whether MOOCs are a worthwhile way to teach anybody anything. In January of this year, San Jose State University announced a big collaboration with Udacity to offer low-cost MOOCs for remedial courses; by June, it suspended the collaboration owing to "disappointing student outcomes". The preliminary data on completion rates indicates single-digits for a lot of MOOCs. On the money side of things, Georgia Tech's excursion into a MOOC-based MS in Computer Science encountered little in the way of cost savings. Coursera started offering certificates of completion, realizing that there's little incentive for a student to finish a course without some kind of carrot on the end of the stick.

Most telling, perhaps, is Udacity's about-face, prompted by founder Sebastian Thrun's stark realization that:

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product."

Udacity, shepherd of curious, engaged world citizens who are taking hold of the basic human right of higher education, is getting into vocational training in a big way.

Over the past year, Udacity has recruited a dozen or so companies, including Autodesk, Intuit, Cloudera, Nvidia, 23andMe, and, which had sent a couple of reps to discuss a forthcoming course on how to best use its application programming interface, or API. The companies pay to produce the classes and pledge to accept the certificates awarded by Udacity for purposes of employment.

Udacity won't disclose how much it is making, but Levine of Andreessen Horowitz says he's pleased. "The attitude from the beginning, about how we'd make money, was, 'We'll figure it out,'" he says. "Well, we figured it out."

Thrun, ever a master of academic branding, terms this sponsored-course model the Open Education Alliance and says it is both the future of Udacity and, more generally, college education. "At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment," Thrun says, sounding more CEO than professor. "If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it's the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?"

If anything needs a voice, it's industry. It's high time someone took a stand for industry. And what about those high ideals from the vision statements, that free education for people who can't otherwise get at it?

The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. "These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives," he says. "It's a group for which this medium is not a good fit."

So, then, who are these MOOCs for after all?

Although Thrun initially positioned his company as "free to the world and accessible everywhere," and aimed at "people in Africa, India, and China," the reality is that the vast majority of people who sign up for this type of class already have bachelor's degrees...

…and are already being considered for employment by Google, Salesforce, Autodesk, and others.

A few questions

The only truly galling thing about MOOCs is the puffed-up idealism and rhetoric that accompanies them wherever they go. The technology is admittedly complex and impressive, and there's no doubt ways for colleges and universities to meaningfully incorporate some of it into their online offerings. But the techno-utopians, venture capitalists, and attention-hungry professors framed higher education's problems in a particular way so as to pose MOOCs as the one-stop solution.

Would their basic assumptions hold up under any kind of scrutiny?

What if higher education's problems don't come down to issues of costliness? What if it's not all about professors who want access to ten-thousands of students? What if a university degree isn't simply a token to a higher-paying job?  What if college isn't a basic human right? What if education is more than just putting free content in front of a student?

What if there are human problems technology can never hope to solve? What if there are human problems education can never hope to solve?