Issues with costs, free and open in education – formulating some ideas for a project

We are currently working on ideas for the topic that we will use in our H818 MA project, so I am using this blog post to “think aloud” about what mine might be.

I think it will be something that builds on two strands which I believe are related:

1) I have previously written about the lack of understanding of the costs of online education and the implications to the education sector that are likely to result from the increasing adoption of new technology. As a Chartered Accountant with a commercial background who now works in higher education delivery and management, I bring a particular perspective to this. My blog post on this topic is by far my most viewed, suggesting to me a widespread interest in the topic that is not being generally met. Since writing this post, I have come across very little recent work on the subject – a paper by Rumble (2012) which notes, among other things, the general lack of interest and evidence in this area, and the work of Paul Bacsich, much of which is now quite dated.

2) Like many others, I am increasingly bothered by the proliferation of “free” services, which seems to me to often result in an opaque charging structure and unintended consequences. I have recently read Jaron Lanier’s (highly recommended) book (Lanier, 2013) which deals with this topic in some detail so I will just illustrate briefly with a couple of examples. Facebook is the most obvious example, to me, of a “free” service which we pay for in hidden ways – by providing lots of personal data to be sold to advertisers, having our behaviour modified and even allowing them to reshape our attitudes as a society to privacy. This may or may not be a price worth paying for free photo-sharing and chat, but the question is not raised often enough. For me personally, the price is too high for what I get in return.

Another example has been highlighted in our module discussions. Our module chair posted a video of Luis von Ahn’s TED talk about his work with Captcha and Recaptcha. It’s fascinating stuff, and I did not know that the Recaptcha tool is enabling the digitisation of the world’s books, or that the model is now being extended so that users can learn a language for free while at the same time translating large volumes of web content. By the way, Recaptcha is also now owned by Google.

Again, there are some issues here – issues that don’t receive enough consideration in the general enthusiasm for “free” and “open”, and certainly aren’t being considered by the TED audience if the wild applause is anything to go by. Money payments have their downside (excluding those with no money for a start), but one advantage of them is that they are reasonably transparent – if I am paying money for something I generally know how much and can judge whether it is worth what I am being offered in return. But with Recaptcha, we pay for access to “free” sites by contributing our labour towards Google’s digitisation project. Is this reasonable? I don’t know, but I wish we were able to make the choice.

Within education, this leads us inexorably to the MOOCs, the providers of “free education”, currently hunting for a business model. In the process, some of them, including Coursera and FutureLearn, have pulled off the remarkable feat of persuading universities to contribute staff time, resources and IP towards their commercial ventures in exchange for some brand-building of unproven effectiveness and a “feel-good” factor. Does “free” here really mean piggy-backing off the general funding of the HE sector? Maybe this is a good idea, maybe it isn’t. Keep in mind that, as I have previously noted, 80% of Coursera students already have a degree and 40% a postgraduate degree, so all this resource is mostly going towards those are already well educated.

You get the idea – there are some questions here that aren’t being addressed much, which is where I think the two issues are related. I wonder whether the general lack of understanding of costs, value for money and business models within has left the field open to those who, for various reasons, want to claim that they can offer it for “free”, even though the truth is that costs need to be recovered somehow and the real question is how. Can good education really be delivered for low cost at scale by using technology? This would certainly help the case that costs can be recovered by other channels, perhaps using a freemium model. Is there any actual research available into cost structures that might help us determine this? What are the ethical issues in the MOOCs finding a business model – for example, is advertising acceptable? A link posted in our tutor group shows that at least one provider is going down this route.

So the general area is understanding costs in online education and why “free” is an idea that needs to be evaluated critically. This is a big topic so for the purposes of this project I will need to narrow it down. Maybe it would be most practical to consider the following, as an implementation topic:

“Costs, business models and sustainability in open education – is ‘free’ viable?”

In the spirit of open, all feedback and reactions are welcome and will be credited if used!


Lanier, J. (2013) Who owns the future? Penguin, London.

Rumble, G. (2012), “Financial management of distance learning in dual-mode institutions”, Open Learning, vol. 27, no. 1, pp 37-51.



Filed under H818 The Networked Practitioner

5 responses to “Issues with costs, free and open in education – formulating some ideas for a project

  1. Anne Bradbury

    Yes, I see your dilemma here, Daniel.

    All of the above are very interesting areas where you could put your Accountancy skills to good use. In fact, because you are unlikely to have access to all the detailed data involved in any of the examples given above (or that’s what others may claim!), I would suggest you consider a broad overview – as you have done above. This would be very much in the spirit of the TED talks that I know you have been interested in.

    Such an approach would cover the themes of implementation and innovation – and would lend itself very well to a presentation model (if you feel that is right for you).

    What do you think?


    • Thanks Anne and I had started to think about the practical problems in getting access to financial data. Where I think I could bring in some case studies is looking at some examples of OER initiatives that have used or at least attempted specific business models. I’m interested to see if anyone has come close to establishing one, and have put out a request on Twitter for examples.

      Yes, I am also attracted by the presentation model, just as a variant on the academic paper.

      Thanks for your comments and it’s encouraging that you think I am on a promising track

      • Hi Daniel, interesting blog post.

        There are the costs associated with producing and maintaining oer such as MOOCS and open textbooks – the people who write them, video them, test them, peer review them, the infrastructure of servers, other hardware and technicians to support it.

        On the other end, there are costs associated with using oer. I have a practical interest in utilising open textbooks with learners, but there is a substantial cost implication to either me or the company I work for in terms of staff hours trawling through the available oer, reading and reviewing, and then adapting and sharing. Open textbooks might not be free at all in this case! It might be cheaper to buy print textbooks…

  2. That’s a really good point, Jo. It is quite easy to claim that something is “free”, when all you have really done is displace the costs to somewhere less obvious. In your example, the purchase cost of textbooks is displaced to staff time. I have seen this sort of thing happen a lot in my career…

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