Can Free Online Education Be Both Successful and Beneficial?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"What would it take to create a wildly profitable, culturally effective, online education system? How could the system reflect the marketplace demands of an era of technology and provide tangible resources for students to find and create opportunity? What would that look like?"  (Imaqubela, 11 April, 2012)

There has been an interesting shift in online education in the last few years; entrepreneurial-minded academics are starting their own free online schools such as Udacity and Coursera, major universities are offering free courses online or sharing their materials via YouTube or iTunesU. The Khan Academy has become wildly popular, TED has even jumped into the game by launching TED Ed, and there are countless other avenues through which students can now pursue a free online education. It is common knowledge that, "if something seems too good to be true, it probably is." So what’s the catch with these free online opportunities? Are they really too good to be true or can they be profitable to those offering them as well as beneficial to the rest of society?

(Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

To Profit or Not to Profit? That is the Question
Salman Khan has been very upfront about the not-for-profit nature of the Khan Academy (Salmon, 12 Jan., 2012), and the funding that it has received thus far has come entirely from donations and grant funding from entities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google’s Project 10 to the 100 award. Interestingly, Khan reports in the Khan Academy FAQ that he quit his job as a hedge fund manager in September of 2009 and was living off of his savings while he created the Khan Academy, essentially because it was a good thing to do (About Khan Academy).

Udacity, in contrast, is a stock offering, for-profit corporation based in the Silicon Valley. It is, however, a company that does not make any money. In an interview with Felix Salmon for Reuters, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun was very forthcoming about the reasons why he chose to start Udacity as a for-profit, rather than a not-for-profit in the Khan mold. In the interview he states, "[being] for profit is not forced to make profit. I needed to get people together really fast, and it’s much easier to do that under the ways of a Silicon Valley company." (Salmon, 12 Jan., 2012). So the fact that Udacity is technically a for-profit company does not, in practice provide a distinction between it and The Khan Academy.  So why did Thrun leave Stanford to start Udacity and, more importantly, will it turn into a profit-making entity at some point?

This is a complex issue, and I recommend reading Salmon’s entire article in Reuters to get the whole story, but the thumbnail version is that Thrun actually left Stanford to continue working for Google (he was out of leave time) and that he started Udacity independent of Stanford largely because of Stanford’s unwillingness to offer formal credits for their free online courses.  Is Thrun expecting that Udacity will eventually turn in to a moneymaker? Salmon provides insight into this question as well:

"Udacity seems to be built on the standard VC model of get scale first, worry about monetizing it later. And if Udacity does end up with millions of students, I should imagine that there are quite a lot of companies which would pay Udacity to be able to reach those students. Simply charging technology companies to put job opportunities in front of students with given grades and qualifications would probably generate quite hefty fees. So long as the education itself remains free, I don’t think that being a for-profit is in and of itself a bad thing."

Thrun’s expectations in this endeavor are unclear, but there is potential that, given the success of Udacity’s first round of classes, it will eventually make money. However, profit does not seem to be Thrun’s primary motivation for starting the company. His real motivation, as with Khan, is altruism, and that is a hopeful sign not only for education, but for humanity.

How Do You Measure Success?
Working in education and seeing the constant assault against an institution that has making humanity better as its primary function has made me skeptical that there is any good left in the world worth fighting for.  But seeing successful individuals such as Khan and Thrun abandoning positions that would provide them with lifelong security in order to make the world a better place for everyone in a "me first" age that would make Gordon Gekko cringe, is encouraging. I am reminded of the Sam Gamgee’s speech at the end of the Two Towers film:

“But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something. . . That there’s some good in this world and its worth fighting for.”
-Samwise Gamgee (Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002)

At heart I am still an optimist, and I really do believe that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. I am happy to see innovative thinkers like Khan and Thrun leading the fight to make education accessible to all.

Share your optimism about the future of free online learning at Google+ or on Twitter @drjwmarquis