Free Online Courses: Long Term Trend or Tactic?

September 13th, 2012 No Comments Other


Joe McKendrick, writer for Smartplanet, recently wrote an article about the open online courses Stanford University is offering to anyone around the world who has access to a computer and the Internet. Last year, the University started the program by offering two free computer science courses, but has since expanded their program to include 16 different courses, ranging from technology to creativity.

As online education continues to expand and develop through non-traditional channels, Universities are quickly starting to realize that the outrageous cost of a college education is nearly impossible to sustain for much longer. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, the average cost of tuition (per year) in the United States for a public state University in 2011 was $13,600, and for private universities $36,300. In Australia, that number is between $15,000 to $36,000.

Without a full scale restructuring, colleges are soon going to be faced with a crisis. Private companies with very little overhead are introducing free or low-cost courses that rival some of the top college classes. As more and more businesses accept this type of education as a legitimate way to measure the marketability of a potential employee, Universities may have to scramble to find new students.

Given the darkening prospect for traditional universities, Stanford’s free online course program can be looked at in one of two ways- as a trend or a tactic. Despite the data supporting otherwise, there is still an elitist mentality that elevates students who get a degree through the traditional route as more prepared for the job market than those who get a degree from the non-traditional sector.

Perhaps Stanford’s free open online classes are a way to whet the appetite of possible new students, offering them a chance to taste a Stanford education at no cost. The hope would be that many of these students would then go on to apply at Stanford, giving the University more applicants.

Is this open online program only going to remain free for a few years, before it gets rolled over into a tuition-based program?

Though Stanford is proudly offering these competitive courses to the world, there is currently no option to transfer academic credit to those who have enrolled. This raises an important question: If no certificate or credit is awarded for these classes (or any testing to prove skills learned), why is Stanford spending money and resources to grow their free open online program?

Is this just another marketing technique aimed at keeping the University’s reputation as an elite institution?

Of course, the other option is that the University faculty is so in favor of education (as a basic human right) that it is their moral and ethical obligation to offer their knowledge for the betterment of the world. These free online programs may be a testing prototype for future online learning offered through Stanford. Perhaps, they are looking for the best and the brightest most motivated students, so they can offer them a free scholarship to the University.

One thing is for sure; this new program gives Stanford a chance to continue developing the software platforms that host distance education classes. Class2Go and Coursera, both designed by Stanford faculty and engineers, are widely known as platforms that work well to create a classroom-like atmosphere despite the limitations of a computer screen.

Each one offers different capabilities such as video lectures, quizzes and tests, the ability to interact with peers and teams, and forums for discussion. Offering free courses with this software does give the University a market for selling this software to other institutions.

As time goes on and the popularity of online education increases, it’ll become clear what Stanford’s motivations are.

Are they truly willing to restructure itself to partner with other non-traditional learning opportunities, or are they simply masquerading as an institution willing to join the online learning trend, with no real plan to change its practices?

Image by English106


Julie DeNeen has her bachelor's degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of New Haven. She spent several years working for a local Connecticut school at the district level, implementing new technologies to help students and teachers in the classroom. She also taught workshops to teachers about the importance of digital student management software, designed to keep students, parents, and teachers connected to the learning process.

You can find out more about her @jdeneen4 and Google+.

Leave a Reply