Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does Free Content = Cheap Education?

Wired editor Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price (article-length summary here) argues that the future will be shaped by "free" products--digital versions of things that cost almost nothing to produce and can be had for free by consumers. Profits will be made by getting people to pay for the things that surround the "free." So, for example, Red Hat makes money not off its linux-based software but from providing support. Or Google makes money not from search, but from advertising that exists around free search.

Malcolm Gladwell published a critical review of Free in this week's New Yorker. Gladwell points out that many things that appear to be free, actually cost a great deal of money--YouTube, for example, which is losing a half billion dollars a year by providing a free site to post and view video.

There are at least two key reasons why free isn't free. For content providers infrastructure to provide the free costs money. So even though storage is almost free, YouTube spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on storage. For consumers, the absence of price drops a key indicator of quality. So a free video or piece of software may be good or it may be horrible. Without price, the market cannot indicate its value. (Of course there are rating systems on sites like YouTube--they seem to provide very little meaningful guidance on quality, though.)

These two points are essential for thinking about the educational implications of "free." We are now at the point where enough content for an entire education can be had for free. Many people, myself included, are hoping that free content can reduce the cost of education.

But educational cost won't go down unless we can figure out the infrastructure problem and the quality problem. Right now, most free content is actually heavily subsidized. MIT's OpenCourseWare project, for example, is only free because MIT is willing to pay faculty and staff to post their courses for free, and cover the storage costs. Higher education is providing a real civic service by providing "free" content, but that doesn't mean the content is actually free.

The quality problem is two-fold. Right now, a lot of the free content is poorly done, or provided in educationally useless formats. And, very few of the free content providers also provide the sort of service around the content that ensures that learning takes place. Or put another way, few providers have followed Red Hat's model of excellent free content and rich, useful, top quality support.

So it seems the real area for innovation is not in open source learning content. Instead it is in re-building educational institutions so that they can respond to the infrastructure, quality, and service challenges out there.

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