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Over the past decade, there has been a steady rise in Open Courseware programs. Open Courseware is the concept of college courses being offered to the general public free of charge via the internet. The pioneer of the Open Courseware movement was MIT, who began this initiative in 2002. Soon, reputable universities such as Yale, Berkeley, Norte Dame and Tufts followed suit and created their own open courseware programs. This raises many questions about the future of education in the modern world. If were are able to access courses provided at some of America’s most elite institutions at no cost, why are we still spending upwards of $160,000 to obtain degrees from these same universities?

This dichotomy leads me to ask: Who owns the knowledge anyway? Is it worth $160,000 to have access to the same information but have a grade attached to it? Do college students attend school simply to get a piece of paper we can show to prospective employers, or do we go in order to expose ourselves to new ideas and concepts that enable career success and personal fulfillment? The truthful answer is: maybe a little of both….but maybe more of option A.  To be quite realistic, if you truly want to learn a piece of information, the college classroom is not the only place to obtain it. That’s what Google is for! Back in the day, nerdy, diligent, determined people would rush to the library to discover an answer to a pressing question. Now it isn’t that hard. The answer is literally at our fingertips. As long as we have a phone or computer near us, we have an infinite amount of knowledge at our disposal. The Worldwide Web has replaced academia as the gatekeeper of knowledge. And yet here I am, like so many other 20 somethings, taking out obscene amounts in loans in order to be assigned online articles and write about what I’ve read (How original!)

Colleges and universities are recognizing and maximizing on the internet’s possibilities and offering online degree programs that students can complete in the comfort of their own homes.  It makes sense right? Why pay for utilities and campus maintenance costs when you can just streamline everything to the web? (Oddly enough, these programs still end up costing almost 40 grand a year. Funny how that works out.)  Nevertheless, online degree programs are a viable option for millions of people. A 2004 survey indicated that 2.35 million students were enrolled in online courses nationwide. (educause.org) I’ m willing to bet my right arm that number has grown significantly since then. Many people question the effectiveness and validity of these online programs. I mean, isn’t the success of your college experience contingent on the relationships you make with you professors, students, and the overall campus environment? Not really… At the end of the day people just want the degree so they can become marketable in their particular field in order to get paid more, and gain the qualifications to boss other people around.

But wait! Companies are paying less and less for college educations! MSN Money reported, “The four year college degree has come to cost too much and prove too little. It’s now a bad deal for the average student, family, employer, professor, and tax payer.” Why you may ask? The simple answer is college degrees are becoming a dime a dozen. More and more people are seeking them and the inflation of diplomas is lowering the financial return on our investment.  Moreover, the cost of education continues to rise. MSN reports that over a period of 10 years, increases in tuition and fees were 36 percent at private colleges and 51 percent at public ones. Yeesh! That doesn’t seem too hopeful.

What is the alternative you might ask? What if we were able to train ourselves to utilize the valuable gift of the internet in the highest possible way? It is easier than ever before to educate yourself on a variety of topics for free! Higher education has typically been used as a means of dividing the smart intellectuals from commoners. Not the case anymore…anyone can get a degree! The question is, why are millions of people spending crazy amounts of money on online programs when they can access the same information virtually for free? I’m wondering what would happen if we invested those thousands of dollars into the actual goals and dreams we attend college to reach? If we want to go to business school why not invest in an actual business? If we want to pursue sociology to do social justice work, why not start a large scale social justice volunteer project? Hey, $40,000 a year is a lot of money I’m just saying. Initiating these experiences would make us more knowledgeable and experienced then we ever dreamed we could be sitting in a college classroom. I know these ideas are quite fanciful but you’ve got to start somewhere right?

Open Courseware Links: Why not give it a try?

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