Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education: Better Than Free

Free Kevin Kelly writes about eight things that are better than free:
  • Immediacy
  • Personalization
  • Interpretation
  • Authenticity
  • Accessibility
  • Embodiment
  • Patronage
  • Findability
and says:
The internet is a copy machine .... Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.
How does one make money selling free copies?
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can't be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
Education can't be copied, because education is a service, not a product. The sooner we get it into our heads we are selling a service not a product, and that we're never going to sell someone two kilos of science (or law, or geography ...), the sooner we'll start to understand this education business.

And that's why Laura Dewis' defence of OpenLearn is flawed.
While OpenLearn units must be structured learning experiences in their own right, including learning outcomes, we recognised from the beginning they couldn’t compare to the supported open learning experience our registered students enjoy. But again, they weren’t meant to be.
At present, OpenLearn isn't worth over five million quid (particularly not since the recycled materials it's based on have already been paid for). Will it ever be?

Update: It's worth adding to this the report that Seb Schmoller points at, Analyses of European Megaproviders of E-learning, which gives seven main reason why mega-initiatives fail:
  1. Realize that hard-nosed market research is essential for the success of any e-learning initiative;
  2. Plan carefully for and control carefully the revenue and expenses. Seeding funding dries up quickly;
  3. Choice of courses and their accreditation is crucial;
  4. Define precisely the relationships of your initiative to existing providers and define precisely the institutional model you will adopt;
  5. Plan carefully to manage both educational and business activities;
  6. Avoid top-down political and boardroom initiatives;
  7. Avoid consortia of institutions that compete with each other and the consortium.


  1. So how about the 'freemium model' - free and open access to knowledge and sense making technologies can help people who can't afford to pay for, or don't require 'formal' education, while others who can and do, pay for the 'value added services' that suit their specific needs (as in I need a tutor to help me with this or I would like to pay for the exam to get a qualification)? Is this also flawed or does it start moving us towards a world where more equal access to knowledge and more flexible, personalised learning services are provided that take into account diverse needs, a variety of information sources, the learning power of network connections and a redefined sense of the expert? OpenLearn is only one step towards the future - and I can see why it doesn't appear innovative to some on the surface of things - but I do think it is contributing to a cultural shift in how we view education and the creation and sharing of knowledge.

  2. Hi Laura, thanks for commenting. For me, one of the problems with OpenLearn as it stands is that it falls between two stools. It's clearly trying to be more than a document dump, but it doesn't go as far as offering "service-level" education. In that respect, Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative ( is better thought out in my opinion.
    The freemium model is interesting, but whether it's financially viable, I don't know. Are there any examples of large scale freemium models in education?