If I was going to offer you the best education in the world for free, I am sure you would accept it happily. The next thing you would be thinking, where is the catch? The biggest news to hit the education world since “free public school” has been happening for the past year in California and today it hit Philadelphia’s most renowned university with Top Tier Universities Offer Free Courses. If there is anything my father taught me, it was that there is nothing free; yet, if there is anything the internet has taught me, everything is free.
What are the implications of our top universities suddenly giving away their courses free? All of a sudden, there are no more SATs, no more pre-requisites, no credentials to attend Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Penn. Just put on your pajamas, and enjoy an Ivy League education without any of that musty smell of 300-year-old buildings, the nail painting girl talking in front of you or the beer belcher frat guy behind your $50,000 seat. There must be a catch, and for lunch, I am going to order it.
Cyber schools have been exploding and yet no one will contest their economic viability or success. It is different, it is new, it is profitable, it has the internet, so it must be good. Deep down in our social human nature, we know that experiencing learning in a public forum is good for our democracy and our species. We need to know how to relate, behave and judge human interaction for us to be civil adults and patriots, let alone one day have the emotional and social skills to find mates. But this announcement is the giant bomb that is going off silently, making cyber-learning a legitimate and perhaps the best choice for the future of education. Would you rather have A.) a Harvard educated mind from a computer or B.) a SUNY degree? The answer is A.
This announcement knocks the walls down from the traditional university in the same way the internet knocked the ink and paper out of the news and magazines. If state and private universities were not shaking in their Docksiders before with the onset of cyber education, this should get them moving. Print publications will never recover and their owners are still reeling from the loss of revenue. The biggest implication is that by giving away what people want most, the information which they are willing to pay to get, you lose the meaning of all the amenities around it, regardless of how historic, loyal, scenic and modern your institution is.
The contributing universities say that this is a tool to attract new students by showing off their rigorous, diverse and technological attributes. This move is actually the beginning of the monopoly these universities are longing to achieve. Imagine in ten years when Penn can boast of educating over one million students every semester with the same staff, except for a few more IT people. While there are no fees and diplomas now, they will surely come at a price that will help the middle class achieve what they most covet: acceptance into wealthy tier of academia.
The final implication is the one line that haunted me the most: “it's the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake.” We have libraries for this. This new free university system is a business trying to exploit their name to create a mega-university that will control thought through millions and millions of mini-labs. This will not bring about diversity of thought or interaction, but the same drivel that protects the wealthy and their minions behind those hallowed ivy walls. I am just glad that these universities think they are smarter than the internet, the past media (including movies and music), and all of us just dying to get our hands on a Harvard sweatshirt.
Dad's advice was good as I see things with a skeptic’s vision. But he doesn’t use the internet, and he doesn’t know its capabilities for breaking down what was once sacred and making it free and viable to everyone. The Ivy League should have stayed in their nostalgia and proven lucrative learning environment. But their greed to be the largest academic power will be their undoing, because once you give something away for free, no one will ever pay for it again. These fine schools might have just given the teeth to an educational system that will eat them in return. Welcome to the Internet.
You can follow James Dugan on facebook and on Twitter @jamesduganlb. Purchase his new book through Amazon What Baseball Teaches: A Poetic Odyssey into 2008 Season of the World Champions Philadelphia Phillies