Back in the beginning of August, Bill Gates argued that in a few years, people could learn more effectively using free resources on the Internet than by attending classes at an institution of higher learning, saying that, "Five years from now on the web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.Five years from now on the web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university."
Gates has no idea what he is talking about, and I'm not just saying this because I have a vested interest in students enrolling in classes (in person or online). Indeed, more than half of my income currently comes from teaching online courses for community colleges and universities, so expansion of online education is good for my bottom line. Though, in Gates' vision, I'd still be eventually out of work.
Despite the number of folks that use MIT's OpenCourseWare project that are self-studying (43%), some of whom famously used the electrical engineering content to design solar-powered lighting in Haiti, there are problems with Gates' vision of free online, unstructured, learning for the masses. I'll stick to just a couple of them.
One critically important problem is who pays to develop and distribute this free educational content? Half of OCW's, $3.7 million dollar budget comes directly from MIT. In Gates' vision, people are better off using these free sources, but without a model for them to draw income, these resources will dry up, because schools will eventually not be able to support these endeavors. Someone has to pay for it, whether through donations, subscriptions, or ads. If MIT hasn't been able to move that model, I have little confidence that other organizations will be able to.
That ignores the question of efficacy.
Online instruction is finally old enough that we are getting some studies that try to assess whether online education is as effective as live educational models. The initial results indicate that for the groups most likely to enroll online courses, that live courses are at least slightly more effective. These are likely the folks that need someone to create and enforce a schedule, to provide feedback, and to provide students the benefit of individual attention and feedback. That's not encouraging for folks who envision a decentralized system of free online learning.
Yes, the problem could be course design. We're still learning the best ways to deliver both live and online courses, but we do know that lectures are not the most effective way to deliver information and that small courses that provide individual attention and engage multiple modes of learning are most effective. The issue of course design effects both live and online courses, though, so that may not be the sole difference in learner outcomes.
There's also the issue of learner motivation. The 43% of OCW users that are independent learners are highly motivated people who already have the skills they need to be successful in online courses, and as the Haiti example indicates, may have a specific reason to learn one skill or explore one small branch of knowledge. Based on my experience as a student and an educator, this model does not fit the vast majority of people taking college courses. Most of my community college or university students are not self-motivated learners (though the CC students do seem to have higher levels of motivation). They need the structure and feedback formal courses provide, regardless of format.
Finally, Gates seems not to understand that like institutions of secondary education (high schools), institutions of higher learning don't serve only to transmit discrete bits of information. Like high schools, colleges and universities developed on the Liberal Arts model exist to help students become well-rounded citizens. The idea is to expose students to new ideas, people, and experiences in a coherent and safe setting, to teach critical thinking, to engage and challenge students. Online learners will not get that from an a la carte, laissez faire learning environment that doesn't place demands on them.
Gates' utopian vision would be an absolute disaster for American students, colleges, and businesses.