An increasing number of institutions are creating non-profit initiatives to provide free courses and educational materials online.
Many of these offerings do not lead to qualifications, but can benefit those that use them. They can give insight into subjects, as well as facilitate knowledge-sharing and promote learning without the financial commitment.
However, delivering something for nothing has a price for the provider.
Financial investment is required to produce materials. How can free education sustain itself?
Open Yale Courses (OYC) provides free and open access to video lectures and other materials for 35 non-credit courses taught by faculty at Yale. The OYC site had more than 3.5m unique visitors by the beginning of February 2012.
Ben Polak, professor of economics at the school, explains that the principal aim is to make Yale materials available to a wider audience who may not have access to university education otherwise. Since 2008, every week he has received emails with feedback and questions about his Game Theory course on OYC from all over the world.
Since 2006, the project has been funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has donated nearly $4m.
Diana Kleiner, founding director of OYC, confirms that it has just received the last portion of funding that will support the service until the end of this year.
“We are always looking to make the project financially scalable. We continue to attempt to bring costs down without losing quality,” she says.
In December 2011, a “donate” button appeared on the OYC website with a message encouraging people to support the project. Money has been coming in.
OYC has also formed a partnership with Yale University Press. The plan is to convert the transcripts from a course into a printed book and an ebook.
Professors who edit the books receive royalties and a percentage of Yale University Press’ profits will be shared with OYC. There are three titles due out in spring 2012.
Apple’s iTunes U, an education content provider that business schools and universities are using to present their video lectures and podcasts, is also attracting attention.
HEC Paris is using the platform and has made available at no charge video lectures on subjects such as corporate finance and B2B marketing.
Delphine Wharmby, communications director at the school, says using iTunes U is an effective way of showcasing the school’s work.
She explains that this is an extra service for their students, to enhance their experience and it serves as a teaser for those not studying at the school.
If you are a student seeking qualifications, there are significant developments in the pipeline to create free courses that offer the chance to gain a certificate of achievement with a well known brand name.
This year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has launched and funded a non-profit initiative called MITx.
The first course on offer, a prototype, is Circuits and Electronics. It is available to everyone in the world and there are no formal entrance requirements. The plan is to offer more courses in the autumn of 2012. Students study free and if they want a certificate, they can pay to take an assessment online.
If successful, they will be awarded an MITx certificate. As Circuits and Electronics is a prototype course, the assessment fee will not apply.
Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost, explains that “MITx will be tied to an MIT-wide research initiative into online learning. That initiative will investigate ways in which students – whether on MIT’s campus or part of a virtual community beyond it – learn best.”
He points out that “MITx certificates will bear the name of MITx, not MIT, and we have no plans to offer MITx credit toward an MIT degree. [It] is designed to augment, not replace, traditional forms of education.”
For those who are keen on working towards a degree without having to pay tuition fees, there is an online option.
The University of the People (UoPeople) – an online non-profit university – offers degrees in business administration and computer science.
Launched in 2009, the university was founded by Shai Reshef, who wants to deliver university education to those who cannot afford it. Student numbers are growing and this year there are 1,300 students from 126 countries.
Even though the organisation is staffed mainly by volunteers, the university needs money to run the operation, for example to pay administration and admissions costs.
To make the venture sustainable up to 2014, an estimated 15,000 students and $6m are required.
After that, Mr Reshef hopes that the university will sustain itself from exam processing fees, to be introduced this year, and from application fees.
The fees paid by students will depend on the economy of the country in which they live. UoPeople is seeking donations, applying for grants from foundations as well as investigating partnerships with corporations.
Providers of free courseware and education offer an accessible alternative way to learn and gain qualifications, but there are costs for the providers, who will surely need revenue-generating business models in order to survive in the long run.