As the William Lowe Bryan quote goes, "education is one of the few things a person is willing to pay for and not get." What, then, does that say about free online college classes like those offered by sites like Udacity?
...all of these efforts have been hampered by the same basic problem: Very few people seem to finish courses when they’re not sitting in a lecture hall. Udacity employs state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated pedagogical strategies to keep their users engaged, peppering students with quizzes and gamifying their education with progress meters and badges. But a recent study found that only 7% of students in this type of class actually make it to the end.
I believe that the web is a legitimate place to teach, but I don't think educational content should be commoditized like tech news or cat videos. I think the more an online education platform relies on volumes for profits—or the more a business model uses "education" as an eyeball-getter for some other purpose—the poorer the educational product will be. That's because, like other free(ish) internet things, the product and customer are often the opposite of the ostensible.
Just because the web has driven the cost of information to zero, don’t assume it will or should do the same for education. The two are very different.
The web is a candy land of information. Facebook statuses, Google searches, even Wikipedia entries all exist because people have a sweet tooth for information. Instant-information sites are great, I guess, but I don't think the business models that built such sites lend themselves to educational business models.
Education is much more than the distribution of information. An educated person is much more than an informed person.
Education should cost (someone) something. People who consume education should pay for education either as a product or as a service. And people who educate should be compensated based on their ability to educate, not their ability to create web traffic.
I also think calling this first generation of free education sites "online universities" is misguided. I don't think the university experience, in the pre-21st-century context, can be reproduced online. University, the product, is something people purchase for reasons that go way beyond lecture hall learning. The social experiences that happen in the conventional college setting can't be emulated online. And they shouldn't be.
I think web-based education will continue to evolve, and most likely become less core and more niche. The very best online education platforms will charge for their products and offer a very clear value proposition to their customers, who will buy (and complete) the education as a stepping stone toward practical economic goals.
Maybe instead of using the web to "innovate" education by gamifying and enabling the already-short attention spans spawned by the instant-information-gratification era, online educators will innovate the web by figuring out ways of re-introducing critical thinking into learning.
I'm not saying this will be an easy task, but I think it's one worth taking on. Otherwise, by molding "education" to the Facebook-status-quo we surrender to one of the greatest ironies of the web: it's so open, yet most of us tend to curl up in one corner of it and nurse the same bottles of highly liquid, nutritionless information we did the day before.