Dot Physics

Here is an interesting article from Mashable: In the Future, the Cost of Education will be Zero

In the article, the author Josh makes the following points:

  • College is expensive and some people can’t really afford it.
  • There is a growing trend in online universities. University of the People is one example.
  • Other universities are putting a lot of their material online – example MIT’s OpenCourseWare project.
  • There are a growing number of free textbooks available online. I would like to point to an example of a free physics textbook.
  • Josh also points out that everyone should have a chance to go to college.

First, I completely agree with Josh’s last statement. Everyone should get a chance. The article mentions one way of this chance would be with free online community college courses. Seems interesting, but the devil is in the details. So, here are some points I would like to make:

  • What is college all about? It is not about learning particular pieces of information or preparing for a particular job. Education is about becoming more human. It is about learning of the arts, the humanities and the sciences. It is a place where you can participate in different activities and learn to work with other people. It is more than the sum of its courses.
  • Although online courses are better, I still think it is not equivalent (for most courses) to traditional education. I think a key component of a good course is the ability to interact with peers and your instructor. As an analogy, compare meeting someone face to face vs. talking on the telephone. Not the same, is it? I know this area is improving. There are many more technological tools available to increase the interactivity of a course. Someday, maybe this won’t even be a point.
  • I was going to say something about how college is not job training, but I guess I already said that in the first point. I was also going to say that MIT’s opencourseware is cool, but not the same as a course. Again, I essentially already said this.

Let me just end by saying that I love my job. I know there are problems, especially in dealing with administration and stuff, but it is still a great job. I love facilitating learning, I love being in the academic environment. But, if one day the whole university system is completely changed, I have one thing to say:

I, for one, welcome our new free university system overlords.


  1. #1 Matt Leifer
    July 26, 2009

    Personally, I think the concept of paid university and college education will survive, but that the courses themselves are long overdue for a radical overhaul. In the present era, there is not much point in universities employing large numbers of faculty members to waste their time giving non-interactive introductory lectures to classes of 100+ students. Instead, we could just record the best lecturers, update them every few years, and have students view them online. Therefore, the model of education used in big research universities, which is a lot less interactive than it ought to be, is seriously under threat.

    However, as you said, looking at material online is not the same as being part of a college community. I think that colleges that offer greater interactivity by having much smaller class sizes, greater emphasis on group and project work, and a close-knit community, will survive the transition, since they offer value that cannot easily be reproduced online. Colleges like Quest University ( my be leading the way in this respect. Big universities that want to survive the transition will have to mimic this style of education, but this should be possible given that time will be freed up from having to give repetitive lectures. It may mean that more dedicated teaching staff will have to be hired, but I think that would be a very positive thing.

    The main thing standing in the way of this transition is the myopic focus on research achievement in big research universities, along with students failure to realize that the research prestige of a university is not strongly correlated with the quality of its teaching. However, if student numbers begin to drop due to the availability of free online courses then there should be sufficient motivation for universities to take action.

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