Obama’s $500 million online course giveaway

From the Chronicle of Philanthropy:   OK, maybe backlash is too strong a word. But some distance-learning leaders are starting to raise questions and concerns about President Obama’s new online-education proposal, a great course giveaway that would pump $500 million into freely available Web-based courses. Are new courses needed? Would students get help working through them? Would their privacy be protected as they use the material? 

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A wonderful emeritus MIT professor, Woodie Flowers, has a different concern about the $500 million plan.  Woodie is a co-founder of FIRST.  We had coffee the other day.  I think the Obama folks should talk to him.  He mused: 

“Many parts of the proposed program are very close to what I have been dreaming and preaching about for years!   However, I have serious reservations about the ‘open’ model.  A SUSTAINABLE model is far more important than ‘open.’

If we spend $500 million on even as many as 500 courses, I believe we will have missed a chance to do it right.  $1 million per course is far too LITTLE.  Spreading that money over hundreds of faculty members in many institutions seem like tackling the electric automobile battery problem by giving Gilbert Chemistry Sets to thousands of high school freshmen.

I do not think that “supporting courses” is the most appropriate guiding principle.  I believe the more general and more important idea is that we need to develop the system that replaces textbooks.   Such a system could be used to support courses, but could also be used to REPLACE courses.”

Guestblogger Mike Goldstein

3 Replies to “Obama’s $500 million online course giveaway”

  1. Agree that open and sustainable are NOT mutually exclusive, but open, sustainable and FREE are mutually exclusive. In software, that ongoing support comes at a cost, whether internal or from third-parties. Proper consideration of open courses and open education content requires a similar calculation of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

  2. As we speak, there is one shining highly *sustainable* for-profit model of open textbook creation and deployment. Go take a look at Flat World Knowledge http://www.flatworldknowledge.com . They are not only creatign open textbooks that are *free*, they are also offering very inexpensive print copies and digital alternatives in a way that the consumer (teachers, students) understand. Try going to one of the non-profit open content archives and compare for ease of use, price, flexibility and *sustainability*. The end result, in a contest between FWK and all the others is that students would get a *free* book online, and pay roughly $30 for a print edition. FWK offers much more than that, and they’re not on the dole. Why not give a company like Flat World Knowledge a chance to play in this space, in cooperation with universities? Universities are fantastic provisioners of content; publishers know how to organize and deploy that content so that it gets *used*. We need a public/private partnership model in all this – with the caveat that the large textbook publishers be forced to play with the creation of *new* content if they want to play, instead of repurposing books that have never made it in the marketplace. Let’s give for-profit *innovators* a chance to help make the world of open content a *sustainable* world, one where constant support by the government could be replaced by smart revenue models that will cost students and taxpayers far *less* over the long run, while encouraging further market innovations that better impact education. I’m afraid if this money is given over to educational institutions to run both the content creation and distribution models, we’re going to see more of what the last 10 years has brought from these same players in the open content space – i.e. a bunch of non-interoperable, hard-to-use, non-vetted content archives of open-licensed material that is not *used*, and/or is very difficult to access. We need a better way.

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