Could a ‘Free Education for All’ Dream Come True?

University education had always been, by definition, elitist. Reserved for the brightest or the richest. But in recent years, initiatives from Ivy League and Oxbridge universities have used web platforms like EdX and iTunes U to bring the experience of top flight education to eager learners across the world. Now an explosion of popularity for Coursera has taken e-learning to a new level, with 1.3million students following 200 courses, from 33 top universities. For free.

Let that sink in a moment. As the cost of a traditional degree rockets towards £9K a year in the UK, and between $27-40K in the US, Coursera has enabled people across the world to access the latest knowledge, for the cost of an internet connection.

From the 11th century beginnings of Oxford University through to the 17th century launch of Harvard right through to the 1960s Polytechnics of the UK and the Community Colleges of the US, there has always been either a barrier of academic achievement or some sort of payment required. (Not to mention it taking a good few centuries for ‘being a girl’ to stop being an issue). While the UK had student grants until the late 1990s, students had to at least have the A Level results to get on to a course in the first place.

Even the UK’s flagship distance learning college, the Open University, has had it’s subsidies wrenched away, sending module costs soaring to not far off a bricks and mortar degree.

According to Techcrunch, while the Coursera team initially had to pound the pavement looking for partnerships from America’s top institutions, now the situation is flipped:

‘Institutions are signing up in droves and it may not be long before Coursera’s acceptance rate mimics Harvard’s. Seventeen new universities have joined the startup’s platform, nearly doubling the number of schools that have signed on. That means Coursera’s platform now hosts about 200 courses from 33 international and domestic schools and it now reaches over 1.3 million students around the world.’

So with tuition costs higher than ever, how does Coursera do it and is it scalable to the point where, hell, anyone can get a top education for free?

Well, it got some investment cash in April this year, but that $16 million was not a gift and it won’t last forever. Coursera is a ‘for-profit’ organisation and a few money making initiatives have been mooted, including charging students for certificates, sponsorship from businesses and acting as a go-between for students and employers.

While the number of students is growing, there is an obvious ceiling. Simply, if everyone is studying online and no-one attends the real-life Unis, those schools cease to exist and so does their contribution to Coursera. And there is one other whopping element of university life missing from Coursera: the social life. Networking and collaborating are as vital as absorbing facts and producing essays. Which is where Coursera competitor, Udacity may take the biscuit.

What do you think? Could initiatives like Coursera provide education to those with a desire to learn who are on lower-incomes, leaving bricks and mortar schools to revert to catering for a very rich, pretty small elite? Or does Coursera and its ilk just add to a more flexible learning landscape?

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