Online Open Source Education

Online education is increasingly on the public’s mind with many pursuing higher education during the current tough economic times. Accompanying the growth of the for profit online universities, serving these students, is the open source education movement. This movement, headed by MIT OpenCourseWare and the Khan Academy, seeks to revolutionize education by offering free content to anyone with an internet connection. Bill Gates said in an interview that he believes that within five years the best education will come from the web. Coming from a man who has made billions from investing in innovation, such predictions carry an enormous amount of weight.

There is a huge demand for online education materials, not just for those enrolled in online courses, but for anyone trying to learn. The upcoming generation of college freshman have to think hard to remember a time before Google and YouTube. Therefore, it is not surprising that the first reaction of many young students when faced with a difficult problem is to “Google it.” Interestingly enough, with the plethora of online education materials, it probably is the best strategy. A quick Google search for calculus returns quite a bit more than what one could find in a traditional library. Full textbooks, video lectures, practice problems with solutions, internet forums connecting to thousands of helpful experts, computer programs, and more content growing by the day make a trip to the library seem silly unless you plan on using a library computer to access the internet.

So where is the open source education movement taking us? Despite the enthusiasm of many, I do not foresee the destruction of the over priced higher education system (bubble?) any time soon. Although, it would be an interesting case study to submit a few resumes with a list of watched YouTube videos as one’s education credentials. The open source education movement will have an effect, however, in the industry that produces supplemental education materials. There is a whole section of “Learn Calculus Fast!” style education books that could be disappearing off the shelves of your local book store (if your local book store hasn’t already disappeared). How are they to compete with interactive online materials, video lectures, and discussion forums for these subjects? Quite frankly, I don’t see how they can.

More interesting than the business impact of the open source education movement is the psychology behind it. What is driving people to produce their own YouTube videos solving calculus problems? Or spending their evenings in a forum devoted to organic chemistry, helping students with difficulty understanding the concepts? Economists and psychologists came together to find what motivates people to contribute to open source projects and found three primary motivators. Challenge, mastery, and making a contribution are the driving force behind all open source projects. These three elements are clearly prominent in the case of the open source education movement and one can add in the “joy of teaching” as an additional motivator. It is for these reasons that I agree with Mr. Gates that not only will the best education soon be available on the web, but that it will also be free.