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Is a Free Education Your Next Download?

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The music, film, television and publishing industries have all had to make serious adjustments to cope with the arrival of the Internet. Now it is the universities that are facing a new world where they may be forced to compete with free.

Just as students, seemingly, throughout North America and Europe are reaching their breaking point with constantly rising tuition and fees, punitive student debt and an economy that offers few professional level jobs in most industries the Internet is dealing a broadside to that system.

Coursera and iTunes University have offered free courses for several years. Many of these courses though were simply free lectures and perhaps some supplemental material. It's great for learning for the love of learning but not a real threat to any university. As all things do though, free courses evolved. Many of those courses now offer various kinds of certificates. There are even ongoing attempts to create (nearly) free online universities with full degree programs.

The latest blow to academia though comes in the form of free textbooks for students attending existing bricks and mortar universities. According to MIT Technology Review, textbook prices have been going up at three times the rate of inflation since the 1980s. Boundless.com has found a way around the high price of textbooks. When a student searches a textbook title on Boundless, the site examines the books table of contents and then crawls the internet for public information on the topic. It assembles that information into an electronic book which covers the same topics as the textbook. It may not be exactly the same, but should be similar enough to give students the information they need.

For example (from Tech Review):

In the case of Mankiw's Principles, Boundless offers a stripped-down text covering the same core economic concepts. Mankiw is a snappy writer who starts off his chapter on taxes with an anecdote about Al Capone. Boundless's version reads more like a reference text, but its organization closely apes that of Mankiw's. Both have 36 chapters and even share the same first sentence: "The word economy comes from the Greek word oikonomos, which means one who manages a household."

The company is currently being sued by several large college publishers. You would think that being in academic publishing, they would be a bit smarter or at least learn from history. Suing someone has been the almost totally ineffective, knee jerk reaction of the music and film industries as well. It is highly doubtful that publishers will be able to make the case that scanning a table of contents is the same as copyright infringement. A book is, or at least should be, more than a list of the topics it covers.

It was inevitable that the Internet, which has changed all publishing, would change academic publishing. It was inevitable that the information age would change education and anyone currently paying for higher education or paying off the debts from it will tell you that it has been ripe for change for a long time. It is time for academia to answer the 'dinosaur or mammal' question.

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