Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Free courses could pierce college bubble

August 8, 2012General

I'm taking my first university course in decades. It's called Fantasy, Science Fiction and the Human Mind, and is taught by Prof. Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. I'm loving this course, learning a lot. And it's free at coursera.org.

Here's how it works. We read a book each week. We started with the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, then Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Now we're working on Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Before each book, we see an intro lecture by Prof. Rabkin. It's only about five minutes. Then we read the book, and write a 270-320 word essay on the book. After turning in the essay (on Tuesday), we have 48 hours to grade essays by four of our anonymous classmates. On Thursday, we get our grades and feedback, along with a series of lectures by Rabkin on what we've read.

It's a little backwards from a traditional literature course, where you hear a lot about how the professor views a book before sitting down to write a paper on it. And of course, because of the demands of the course (and the price), we can't expect him and his paid staff to grade all of our papers. So it's different. But it's very good.

And this is my point. These courses are worth a lot, and cost zero. And a year of traditional courses, the ones that provide diplomas, can cost more than $50,000. It's a little bit like the early days of online media, where some people got magazines and newspapers for free, and others paid heavily for paper versions. At some point in education, the marketplace will calculate a value for the free learning, and universities will figure out how to charge for it. And that, I'm guessing, will put pressure on them to lower prices on traditional fare.

If it follows the patterns we've seen in other industries, certain professors will establish global brands and be able to loosen their ties to the university. In media, this is what Walt Mossberg has done at the Wall Street Journal. He keeps his job as the world's most respected tech reviewer, but at the same time, he and Kara Swisher have a thriving franchise at All Things D.

Offerings like Coursera will likely lead to all kinds of disruption. Let's say a student at a small college wants to take a course like the one I'm taking now. It's not offered locally. Couldn't she go to the English department, ask for permission to take Eric Rabkin's Coursera course, and then fulfill requirements by writing papers for an English professor? That way, the college will have outsourced its teaching. At some point, of course, Eric Rabkin and the University of Michigan will figure out how to charge for their services.

As in most Internet revolutions, the walls between different institutions and industries come tumbling down.


                                                      Bela Lugosi, as Count Dracula

By the way, I'm finding Dracula very long and just a wee bit boring. Stoker may have created a monster for the ages, but when it comes to writing, he's no Lewis Carroll.

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