Non-Profit Foundations Challenge Education’s Status Quo

Thanks to advancements in technology, a nearly endless supply of information is accessible to anyone with access to the internet. The advent of websites such as Wikipedia (a free, user-moderated encyclopedia, for those living under a rock), and YouTube has made finding any sort of information easier than counting to 10.

Want to find a recipe for hot and sour soup while you read the Gettysburg Address, listen to the Arctic Monkeys, and find out how to change the oil in your car? Nowadays, you can do all of that for free while you eat breakfast. The ease of access to all sorts of information has changed the way people get their information. No longer are newspapers and television stations the "gatekeepers" of news; instead, that power is shared with bloggers.

In terms of education, traditional universities have also performed the role of gatekeeper. Except the product they deliver has always come with a significant cost. So as the way people get their news changes, will the way people educate themselves change as well? Consider the Saylor Foundation, a non-profit organization established in 1999 which now offers 200 courses in art history, biology, business administration, political science and eight more degrees for free online.

According to the foundation’s website, the goal is to offer a "zero-cost alternative to those that lack the resources to attend traditional brick-and-mortar institutions and a complement to willing mainstream education providers." The website added that the rising costs of going to school, including tuition and the price of books, are one of the "most significant barriers" to getting an education.

"Thanks to advances in technology, elements of the traditional educational experience can be replicated online and accessed from your desktop, laptop, or mobile device," the website read. "By developing, soliciting, and disseminating free online academic materials in a structured and intuitive format, we will be an alternative and a complement to mainstream education providers, especially for students who cannot take advantage of educational opportunities because they cannot afford them."

The Saylor Foundation isn’t the only free, or almost free, place to learn on the Web, though. There’s also the Peer-to-Peer University, which is supported by Mozilla, and the University of the People, which works with Yale University and is partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative. But none of these universities are accredited, which means the credits earned will not transfer to a traditional university. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

"There are a lot of institutions that are observing what people really need from universities. Maybe these upstarts don’t have all the bells and whistles of the beautiful campuses. But people are deciding it’s not worth paying for that," Michael Horn, Innosight Institute executive director of education, said to The Hechinger Report.

However, not everyone is on board. Carol Geary Schneider, the Association of American Colleges and Universities president, said these independent self-study programs aren’t a good enough of a replacement for classroom work.

"Libraries are free, too," Schneider said to The Hechinger Report. “You can roam around, read books and study. But hardly anyone would say that spending time in the library is a good preparation to work in any economy, much less this one."

Yet Horn said the perception of the quality of these types of programs may change as they become more sophisticated.

"What we predict is that these upstarts coming in will get better and better over time," Horn said, "such that they would try to handle those accreditation problems and be more visible to employers."

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