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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 10.0° F  Fair
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Citizen Dave: MOOCs and the long-term danger of free knowledge

Credit:Alexei Vella

A few weeks ago, I wrote an Isthmus cover story about "MOOCs," or massive open online courses. I reported on some nervousness about what this might mean for the bricks-and-mortar campus. Nothing I've read or seen since is making me feel any more sanguine about this.

The New York Times, which offers interesting video clips every day, had one this weekend on that subject. You can view it, and get a good sense of what all this is about.

But here's the quote that struck me: "It makes more sense to build your user base first. And then figure out later how to monetize it than to worry too much at the beginning about monetization." That was said by Edward Rock, University of Pennsylvania Open Course Initiatives adviser. (It comes at about the three-minute mark in the video.)

I couldn't disagree more with Mr. Rock. This is exactly the way newspapers looked at the brave new world of the Internet, and it resulted in disaster. Good newspapers went under, and virtually every surviving paper limps along now on skeleton reporting staffs. The result is that more people than ever are reading less content. We're becoming massively less well informed, trading opinions more than real information.

This is what happens when you put English majors in charge of a business. Somebody has to be looking out for the bottom line, and the attitude that we'll just put it all out there and then figure out how to pay for it later is just reckless. It's a classic "shoot, ready, aim" approach.

So, initially this all looks wonderful. You can go to Coursera or other online learning platforms and choose from hundreds of free courses offered by some of the best thinkers in the world. The dissemination of knowledge has to be a good thing.

But just like newspapers, which didn't figure out from the beginning how they were going to use this platform to pay reporters to actually gather the news, if universities don't develop a way to "monetize" this quickly, I think we're in for a rough ride for higher education.

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