In the Future, the Cost of Education Will Be Zero

computer-learningThe average cost of yearly tuition at a private, four-year college in the US this year was $25,143, and for public schools, students could expect to pay $6,585 on average for the 2008-09 school year, according to the College Board. That was up 5.9% and 6.4% respectively over the previous year, which is well ahead of the national average rate of inflation. What that means is that for many people, college is out of reach financially. But what if social media tools would allow the cost of an education to drop nearly all the way down to zero?

Of course, quality education will always have costs involved — professors and other experts need to be compensated for their time and efforts, for example, and certain disciplines require expensive, specialized equipment to train students (i.e., you can’t learn to be a surgeon without access to an operating theater). However, social media can drastically reduce much of the overhead involved with higher education — such as administrative costs and even the campus itself — and open source or reusable and adaptive learning materials can drive costs down even further.

The University of the People

One vision for the school of the future comes from the United Nations. Founded this year by the UN’s Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technology and Development (GAID), the University of the People is a not-for-profit institution that aims to offer higher education opportunities to people who generally couldn’t afford it by leveraging social media technologies and ideas.

The school is a one hundred percent online institution, and utilizes open source courseware and peer-to-peer learning to deliver information to students without charging tuition. There are some costs, however. Students must pay an application fee (though the idea is to accept everyone who applies that has a high school diploma and speaks English), and when they’re ready, students must pay to take tests, which they are required to pass in order to continue their education. All fees are set on a sliding scale based on the student’s country of origin, and never exceed $100.

Right now, the University only teaches two courses, information technology and business administration, which school founder Shai Reshef says are the two most useful degrees for finding a job around the world. Of course, the school is not yet accredited and can’t yet confer degrees, but applying for proper accreditation is planned.

Each week, students log onto to the school’s web site to attend a lecture, following which they can discuss the subject matter with other students (asynchronously due to time differences), download course materials, get help from other students or volunteer professors, or take tests to advance to the next course unit. Tests will be automatically graded, or peer-reviewed by multiple other students.

“It’s not for everyone,” said Reshef at an education event earlier this year. “You need to know English, you need to have a computer… our assumption [is that the students will be from] the upper end of the lower class or the lower end of the middle class… it’s people who almost made it… who could have been at the university but missed their chance.”

The administration of US President Barack Obama is reportedly also considering the merits of establishing a free online university. According to draft discussion documents obtained by Inside Higher Ed in June, the administration has had high level discussions about creating courses aimed at community college attendees that would be delivered online for free. According to the report, the government is considering a $50 million per year budget to “pay for (and own) courses that would be free for all, as well as setting up a system to assess learning in those courses.”

“According to the draft materials from the administration, the program would support the development of 20-25 “high quality” courses a year, with a mix of high school and community college courses. Initial preference would go to “career oriented” courses. The courses would be owned by the government and would be free for anyone to take. Courses would be selected competitively, through peer review, for support. And the courses would be “modular” or “object based” such that they would be “interoperable” and could be offered with a variety of technology platforms.” — Inside Higher Ed

A College Education for Free: OpenCourseWare

In April 2001 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed something unheard of in the pages of the New York Times. They said that they would begin putting their entire course catalog — some 2,000 courses — online, for free, over the course of an ambitious ten year initiative at the cost of up to $100 million. The following year, in October 2002, the first fifty courses went up on their OpenCourseWare site. Nearly 7 years later, MIT is nearing its goal, with about 1,900 free courses available through the OpenCourseWare program, and materials now routinely posted on other social media sites, including YouTube (YouTube), Flickr (Flickr), and iTunes U.

opencourswareIn fact, the OpenCourseWare initiative (or its ideas) has spread to over 200 institutions of higher education around the world, including Yale (not technically OCW, but the same idea), Nortre Dame, Tufts, and the Stanford School of Engineering (also not technically OCW).

OpenCourseWare doesn’t confer degrees, but it allows anyone to audit classes at some of the world’s most prestigious institutes of higher education for only the cost of bandwidth. However, because OpenCourseWare course materials are released under a Creative Commons license that essentially allows for the materials to be shared and remixed for non-commercial purposes with attribution, it’s easy to imagine that they could someday be used by institutions like the University of the People or Obama’s theoretical online community college as part of a degree granting program.

Of course, OpenCourseWare isn’t free — or even cheap. Stanford estimates that the cost of putting courses online runs between $10,000 and $15,000 per course — and courses with video content cost twice that. However, beyond the initial outlay to get the courses created and put online, the price of delivering them to the public is only the cost of bandwidth, which is close to free.

A Radical Idea: Free Textbooks

According to the College Board, the average cost of textbooks and supplies for a college student attending a four-year college in the US is $1,077. But what if textbooks were free? What if printed course materials were made open and available online at no charge? How would that change the game?

The Wikibooks project, which began in 2003, aims to create open source, CC-licensed textbooks written by volunteers. The site now contains over 38,000 pages of free textbooks, but unfortunately many of the books remain incomplete. Like Wikipedia (a more well-known project from the same foundation), entries are only completed as volunteers have time, and quality assurance is potentially spotty.

flatworldPerhaps a more sustainable model is Flat World Knowledge, which offers free, CC-licensed textbooks and study materials, but charges a fee for paper copies. The Flat World Knowledge books are written by expert authors that have been vetted by the company and generally have advanced degrees, are professors, or have practical experience in their field. The books are licensed under the same permissive Creative Commons license as the OpenCourseWare materials.

Flat World Knowledge books are currently in use at a number of universities, including Eastern Michigan University, the University of Rhode Island, the State University of New York system, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Sam Houston State University, and others.


The marginal cost of education is being driven toward zero due to social media and innovative approaches to online learning like OpenCourseWare, Flat World Knowledge, and the University of the People. That’s because the nature of information is such that it can be created once at cost and distributed and consumed over and over again for free.

“Knowledge is, as the economists say, a non-rival good,” wrote venture capitalist Brad Burnham in May. “If I eat an apple, you cannot also eat that same apple; but if I learn something, there is no reason you cannot also learn that thing. Information goods lend themselves to being created, distributed and consumed on the web. It is not so different from music, or classified advertising, or news.”

So in the future, the cost of education might be free, or nearly free, which could just level the playing field.


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