“Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.” —Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:491
Recently, the cost of public and private higher education has received attention in the mass media. In May, the New York Times published a series of articles (Plan B, Weighing the Costs and Student Loans) highlighting much of what is wrong with the current model: Colleges and Universities have priced themselves out of the middle-class market. State investment in public higher education is dwindling to the point that the designation of the public university is becoming a misnomer. At best, the new paradigm for public universities is that they are state-assisted. At worst, the harsh reality for public universities is that they are merely state-located (i.e., operating much like private universities but under the state banner). Rather than address the debate regarding who should shoulder the burden of the cost of higher education (the state versus the individual), my purpose is to highlight innovative efforts to address the problem, and thus remain true to Jefferson’s Utopian vision of an educated populace.
A Hidden Cost of Attending College: Textbooks
As of 1 July 2010, the Federal Government as part of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act has decreed that faculty must publicize their textbooks for an upcoming semester at the time students register. Failure to comply will result in a loss of Title IV Federal Financial Aid for the University. The purpose of the act is to provide students with full and transparent information regarding the cost of their course selections (thus, eliminating or mitigating the hidden cost). Textbooks are expensive and can cost students between $500 and $1,000 per semester (depending upon the course of study).
Creative open source alternatives are emerging to address this issue. The OpenCourseWare Consortium, launched in 2005, grew out of the MIT OpenCourseWare project launched in 1999. More than 200 colleges and universities world-wide participate in the OpenCourseWare Consortium. Professors and students can obtain syllabi, lectures and course materials from the website. (As an aside, MIT OCW announced on 12 May 2010 that it was adopting the python-based open source publishing environment Plone for its open courseware content management).
Another good resource for instructors looking for open source materials to use in their courses is the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, or MERLOT. MERLOT serves as a repository for all things open source that pertain to education. It interfaces with the OpenCourseWare Consortium so there is some overlap in materials available for adoption. Both resources provide an affordable, high quality, open source option to professors who are concerned about the burden of the price of textbooks on their students.
And finally, a new textbook publishing model has been established by an innovative company called Flat World Knowledge (disclosure: I have a non-compensated professional affiliation with Flat World Knowledge). Launched in 2007, Flat World is quickly turning the textbook publishing industry on its head. Already the recipient of numerous awards for its innovative approach, an article regarding its disruptive business model may be accessed here.
As more textbooks become available via Flat World, complete with supporting or ancillary materials (powerpoint lecture slides, audio lectures, testbanks), it is expected that the adoption of these textbooks will grow exponentially. A colleague (Dr. Godwin Ariguzo) and I used the Flat World Knowledge marketing principles book to build the marketing principles course for the next innovative endeavor highlighted: The University of the People.
Free Access to Higher Education Online: The University of the People
Founded by award-winning entrepreneur Mr. Shai Reshef, the University of the People commenced classes on 10 September 2009. With the backing of the United Nations’ Global Alliance for ICT and Development and in partnership with the Yale Law School Information Society Project (ISP), the University of the People utilizes the active learning methodology or “learning-by-teaching” model. Courses are developed by content experts (disclosure: I am a non-compensated course developer for the University of the People) and offered as online courses using the Moodle open-source learning platform.
Think about it: providing students in the developing world with free access to higher education. It’s very Jeffersonian and may be the much-needed catalyst for sustainable economic development on a global basis. Intolerance is an outcome of ignorance. Likewise, ignorance begets poverty. By providing open access to higher education, one can envision a more tolerant Utopian world where the gap between haves and have-nots is diminished.
So what does all of this have to do with the status of higher education in the US? Clearly the need for an innovative new model is apparent: one in which barriers to access are removed or at the very least, tolerable. Innovative instructional methodologies and content delivery systems are reducing the need for huge investments in fixed assets by universities. It’s not hard to envision a time when the traditional four-year on-campus university residential experience becomes a thing of the past. After all, colleges and universities are the penultimate content marketers. To survive in challenging economic times calls for a radical shift in the concept of the university, course delivery and the college experience. Innovations in technology are making it possible to deliver courses asynchronously. I’m hopeful that in the near future, you’ll be accessing my marketing and international business courses from your mobile phone. I’m even more hopeful that I’ll be delivering these courses to you from my beach house after spending the morning surfing with Izzy Paskowitz (my Father’s day fantasy).
The open source movement is making the fantasy of access to free education a reality. It’s too bad that it didn’t happen in Jefferson’s lifetime. Happy Father’s Day.