Should Online Education be Free?

Jeffery King
October 17, 2012

It's clear the education realm is at a turning point. Since the Internet was made available to the public, a natural component of its growth has been the concept of free and open information, which covers almost all forms of media for whatever purpose you can imagine, from copyrighted videos and music to personal file sharing and educational material.

However, the significance of online learning is now becoming apparent with the adoption of online courses by leading colleges around the world. Online education was not taken all that seriously before, and any student wishing to gain a higher education would not have considered the online route, due to the questionable quality of the material and the defensive stance of the academic world towards it. But the times are changing, with online courses now a credible way of achieving qualifications that are truly useful. Leading universities are now beginning to offer online courses, opening up a new world of possibilities for education, but the big question is: Should they be free?

Delivering Free Course Content

A driving force behind online education is the concept that information sharing and learning in general should be a free, open source. For education, this concept was thrust into public consciousness with MIT's creation of an online open courseware platform a decade ago, where MIT's complete course catalog was to be placed online for the entire world to use, with other institutions quickly following suit. Their initiative was named "Open Educational Resources" (OER) and it has been clear from the start that this shift to online education is intended to remain free.

Jumping to the present day, OER is clearly gaining momentum, and numerous colleges are offering higher online courses across every major academic subject. Take a class at the University of Pennsylvania for example, where a lecturer is teaching a class of 100 students in person and an additional 40,000 students online. The Canadian government is a big proponent for online learning to help the country's economy, and is planning to make 60 percent of undergraduate courses available online. Such courses are already having a real impact on student employment, especially from a global perspective, with students gaining certificates that other institutions are beginning to recognize.

The Case for Free Online Education

So we know that online education is growing and developing into a real, legitimate, and in many cases free alternative to the traditional educational routes, but should such education be free? There are many reasons why online education should remain free, and there are many advocates protesting the monetization of online courses, which could be a lucrative move in the future.

Many of the people who are benefiting from online education are from developing countries and/or poor backgrounds. A large number of youths have no access to any form of education, and online resources are a brilliant solution in bettering their prospects in life. Aside from the important concept of a level playing field, it can be argued that providing communities around the world with the means to learn is undeniably a force for good. But if online courses were to introduce a fee system, such education would once again be out of reach for the people who could benefit the most from it. There is a clear link between education and social livelihood in developed as well as developing countries, with a direct correlation between lack of education and poverty--a motivating factor for keeping online education a free resource.

Barriers for Online Education

While few in the public see free online education as a bad thing, not everyone is happy about the rise in popularity in use of online education. Some people in the United States are nervous about this shift and the effects that online education may have for teachers, faculty, and the structure of higher education in general. For example, 82 percent of faculty staff surveyed by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations said the Canadian government's "60 percent" plan would harm higher education.

These dissenters obviously do not begrudge the fair playing field, but are worried about their own livelihoods, alongside the opinion that the quality of remote learning can never be as good as direct contact. But there is little evidence to prove such claims anyway, and the fact is that digital learning could be every bit as effective, and perhaps more effective, than traditional avenues of learning. Rather than simply studying the text and following lectures, online courses have the potential to provide better ways to learn, such as interactive questions, experiments, and tests. This added flexibility in learning and improved accessibility is a positive thing, and does not detract from the effectiveness of online learning.

Those against online learning are going to have to come up with a better argument for why online education is not a positive thing.

What do you think: Should online education should be free?

Jeffery King is an education blogger and social media expert for Since graduating from college, Jeffery has continued to stay involved with educating students about college finances, studying tips, online education technology and more.