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A Web raid on traditional higher ed

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on May 6, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
May 6, 2013 6:01 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The Internet keeps on disrupting higher education – sometimes even in a good way. The latest example is the Open Course Library just completed by Washington’s two-year colleges.

The library (opencourselibrary.org) is an online trove of free courses and free or low-cost textbooks developed by local faculty members. The materials cover 81 of Washington’s most popular lower-division classes – principles of accounting, microbiology, symbolic logic, English composition, etc.

The whole enterprise, begun in 2011, bypasses the traditional trappings of college. No big, expensive textbooks, no snoozing in the back of lecture halls, no classrooms.

Price is the selling point. The courses are free, with downloadable content, and the textbooks cost at most $30. In contrast, commercial textbooks can cost well upward of $100 apiece.
The price difference can be decisive for a student struggling along on a meager income. One poll by USA Today suggested that 40 percent of college students didn’t buy a required textbook for lack of money.

The Open Course Library was a joint venture of Washington’s two-year colleges, the Legislature and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the colleges provided the intellectual grunt work; lawmakers and the foundation provided $1.5 million in start up money.

This shouldn’t be oversold. Commercial textbooks can be written by academic giants, designed by pedagogical experts, and difficult to match at the local level. Easy as they are to vilify, textbook publishers are a critical part of higher education; it might not be a good thing if competing freebies forced them to slash their investments in high-end books, DVDs and websites.

The new library is best understood as yet another micro-revolution fomented by online innovators. It’s a low-cost parallel of the broad Web-based curricula already offered by the state’s brick-and-mortar schools, such as the University of Washington and Washington State.

A much larger revolution is coming from another direction, the so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses. These are produced by star professors from such brand-name schools as Stanford and MIT.

Hundreds of thousands of students around the world have tapped into their lectures and curricula at no cost – though evaluations and actual credit will carry a price tag.

The obvious social payoff: more people who know more things – hence a better educated work force driving a stronger economy.

The risk – as with textbooks – is that cheap goods could drive out expensive but irreplaceable educational experiences.

Web classes are unlikely to offer anything like the serendipitous idea-swapping that happens among students and professors on an actual campus. The challenge will be to ring in the best of the new – without ringing out the unique value of the old.

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