Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's hard to compete with free

Everyone employed by a university needs to take a look at an NYT Online column by David Bornstein on free online courses.  Most undergraduate courses -- and no small number of graduate courses -- can be broken into digestible bits that meet the needs of an adult learner looking to improve his or her skill set.  Look at Khan Academy, TED talks and the growing number of elite universities that are making entire courses available online for free.  There now is a lot of good stuff out there for the self-motivated, well-directed learner. 

Until reading Bornstein's article, I was not aware of a new threat to us ivory tower types: ALISON.  ALISON (Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online) is an Irish company that offers certifications in 400 vocational courses.  For free.  ALISON makes money by charging for advertising; those who wish to avoid the ads can pay a modest amount for ALISON'S premium services (where have we seen this business model before?). 

If a critical mass of employers decide that ALISON's credentialing service provides a reliable signal of knowledge, it is not hard to envision a future where students tailor their education to meet their career needs.  In such a world institutions such as NC State will need to provide value through other mechanisms, such as access to preferred networks (our alums, corporate contacts, and faculty) and tailored learning experiences.  Lecturing about supply and demand or debits and credits is not going to cut it in this world. 

On the other hand the certification services provided by the for-profit colleges have not proven to be reliable, so maybe ALISON (a "for-profit social enterprise," according to Bornstein) will not be any different. 

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