The cost of free courseware

I just got an email from the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) project. MIT OpenCourseWare puts the entire MIT curriculum online, free of charge. The materials are excellent, and it’s been hailed as one of the top resources of its kind and an example of why “free is the future.”

The email explains all this, and goes on to explain that their publishing and review cycle costs money. It costs money to check the copyrights and get permissions. It costs money to videotape professors, edit the video, and post it online. Bandwidth and servers are not free.

“In total, it costs about $4 million each year to support OCW.”

The email continues with some examples of how courses are helping people around the globe in worthy projects. But guess what comes next…

MIT is committed to keeping OCW open and free to all, everywhere. You know the value of OCW to yourself and how the materials offer a greater value to humankind. And now you know the cost. Your contribution of $25, $50, $100 –– or whatever amount is right for you –– directly supports the production and distribution of high quality MIT course materials.

Please invest in yourself and your world. Click here to make your donation now.

Now really, people…
The MIT 2007 Financial Report shows an endowment of $9 billion dollars (yes, that’s 9,000 million dollars). In 2007, they took in cash gifts of over $330 million dollars. They really need my $25?

Honestly, it seems tacky. They decided to put their resources out there and generate a lot of publicity about being the wave of the future. Now they are looking for someone else (namely me) to help foot the bill?

But no, not just me. According to Wired Magazine back in 2002, “The William and Flora Hewlett and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations ponied up a total of $11 million for the first two-year phase. (MIT kicked in another $1 million.) Those organizations are likely to continue supporting the initiative, which is expected to require an additional $20 million or so before the rest of the courses are posted by the end of 2006.”

So they asked for money, so what?
I HATE complaining about this, because the MIT materials ARE truly excellent. People around the world can learn from the top lecturers in the field. Every high school educator and interested student should check out the Highlights for High School section of the MIT OpenCourseWare site. There are fabulous multimedia resources, really innovative courses like furniture making and international development, and terrific support materials.

I applaud MIT for finding a way to make all this available AND creating a quality product. The problem isn’t the materials, or even MIT asking for money. (I’m slightly peeved by them asking ME for money, but hey, at least they are being honest about the need to fund their project.)

Free costs money
The problem is that the rest of the world is pretending that because there is no cost to use courseware resources, there is no cost to create these resources.

This particular “free” cost $20 million dollars (probably more!) to get started, and now needs $4 million a year to keep going. Doing some admittedly rough math based on the 1,800 courses online gives food for thought. Each course cost $11,000 to put online, and needs an additional $2,000 per year to keep it up there.

What does this say about the real viability of open courseware in general?

I have to say I’m still struggling with this concept. In this case, MIT is trying to figure out how to expand their influence to become a world-wide leader in education. They obviously made a conscious decision to spend a lot of money to preserve the integrity of their brand by delivering top quality (and therefore expensive) resources. Now they will start to find out what access to this market really means.

In Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business (Wired Magazine 2/25/08), Chris Anderson says, “Technology is giving companies greater flexibility in how broadly they can define their markets, allowing them more freedom to give away products or services to one set of customers while selling to another set.” With OpenCourseWare, MIT is trying to expand its market beyond a few thousand students, a few company research partners, and past the usual academic boundaries to the entire world. It’s an interesting gamble.

In contrast, many other free open courseware and open content libraries sacrifice quality to lower their initial costs. They rely on users to contribute and edit content, but without a guiding editorial hand, the quality will be variable and the coverage sketchy. The tension between these approaches is yet to be resolved.

What an interesting world we live in!


One Reply to “The cost of free courseware”

  1. The feds spend $56 billion per year on K-12 education, and some other huge amount on higher education. They could have a special fund for not only MIT but a bunch of other institutions and it still would be a small drop in the bucket. States also could fund initiatives like this – can you imagine how great it could be if each state subsidized openly available courses from its flagship institution(s)?

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