Why free online education won’t replace traditional college anytime soon

Bill Gates recently said the best college education could soon be available online and for free. And it does seem like we’re getting close to that ideal, doesn’t it? More and more brand-name schools are offering classes online. At the same time, you have this trend of schools putting a lot of their lectures, class assignments, and other course materials online for free. iTunes U has thousands of these courses, including ones from schools like MIT, Stanford, and Harvard. After looking at all this, the dream of free, online education does start to seem tantalizingly close, doesn’t it? Perhaps we can replace a costly and education for the chosen few with laptops and Starbucks cards, throwing the gates of prosperity and knowledge wide open for anyone who cares to partake.

It’s a nice ideal, and one that perhaps we should aim for, but here’s why it won’t happen for awhile:

1. The technology that’s widely in use just isn’t there yet. Many of MIT’s OpenCourseWare courses have only notes, no video, and the ones that have video often lack resolution to be able to read the notes on the board. Also, has anyone ever used Blackboard? It’s horrible. Unfortunately, Blackboard is basically a patent troll company wrapped in the guise of an online education software company, and their patent portfolio hangs like a dark cloud over this space, crushing a lot of potential innovations.

2. Not everyone has the tenacity to sit through four years of college classes and really learn something. Even fewer have the dedication to do it on their own, remotely, with no human interaction other than a webcam to guide them.

3. Schools such as MIT serve as a filter and a credibility indicator. They have great professors, of course, but anyone can obtain the raw knowledge they teach. What’s harder to obtain on your own is the stamp of approval that you’ve learned the material. Anyone who went to a top school will tell you that having it on their resume makes a difference in getting a response from a hiring manager. Many people look at such a resume and think: “MIT…must be pretty smart.” That’s the power of a credibility indicator at work.

4. The people that are needed to make such a huge shift happen are 1) parents, 2) government (for incentives), 3) existing institutions of higher learning, 4) employers (to hire these graduates). Aside from the organizational incentives for these groups, which also are not favorable to such a shift, the people who make up each of these groups are likely to have degrees that are granted using the current model, and thus none are likely to want to undermine their own education choices. What’s the incentive for them to break with status quo?

5. School isn’t just about what you learn…the best schools serve as a kind of bridging ground between childhood and adulthood. Perhaps there are better ways to accomplish this, but some kind of “GED for higher education” hardly seems to be a good solution. I’d rather hire employees who are smart and dedicated than knowledgeable. Most of what they need to know can be taught, but character and raw intelligence can’t be, or at least not easily. Getting good enough grades in high school to get into a great school and then doing well in that school indicate both mental aptitude and the perseverance that I want in people who work for me.

Let me be clear: I absolutely love iTunes U, OpenCourseWare, and all of the other really innovative online education options that we have at our fingertips. I’m just skeptical that they serve the same purpose as college, and even if they do, that our society has the willpower and foresight to be able to replace the college industry so easily. What are your thoughts?