Op-Ed: Education is Free Like Speech and Beer

Cory Lancaster, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of Policy Perspectives or the Trachtenberg school.

Sorry Bernie, the debate shouldn’t be whether or not higher education is a privilege or a right. It shouldn’t even be whether or not college tuition should be free. It should be how can the government accredit free and low-cost higher education courses online? The internet provides free education, but degrees and the subsequent acclaim are expensive. Society salutes symbols of wealth yet simultaneously favors bargains because Versace is still Versace even if it is purchased at 80% off. This same logic should be applied to the education debate. We don’t need free college; we need cultural correcting to respect the legitimate resources that technology has made available to us all.

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Photo courtesy of breaking smart

Education is Free

The truth is that education is already free… like speech, and like beer. In software development, the phrases “free as in speech” and “free as in beer” are used to distinguish context. Free as in beer refers to the cost of software. You can acquire it at little to no cost or someone can purchase it for you, but you can’t access the inner workings of its functionality, change its service, or make copies for distribution. I can sell you some free as in beer software and that’s it. It’s yours to use only for the purpose that I intended. Free as in speech refers to what you are allowed to do with software whether you purchase it or not. Some technology allows the buyer, or end user, to access the source code, manipulate its design and functionality, improve upon and modify the technology, and distribute the original or hacked versions as they wish. I can sell you some free as in speech software but your liberties are completely yours once you’ve acquired it.

Higher education follows a similar trend. Students can pay for college degrees, which include specific knowledge, new ways of thinking and problem solving, and the general ability to learn. But, thanks to the internet, especially YouTube, no one can prevent a person from sharing the knowledge they acquire from any source. Education is free as in beer when you attend an accredited university. You, or someone else, pays your tuition. You pass your classes and upon graduation, you receive the acclamation of a degree at an established university. That acclaim opens career doors, creates a professional network, and helps determine a base salary and ultimately your quality of life. Education is free as in speech when it is acquired and then distributed throughout online platforms that teach free or low-cost coursework. Students give back by sharing legitimate accredited resources, like notes, exams, and textbooks. Then end users take this knowledge to supplement formal instruction or craft their own independent curriculums.

The degree is the difference between free as in beer and free as in speech, not the knowledge, skills, or work ethic. This is the defining point between an educated and prosperous society and an educated and debtor nation. For example, alison.com offers approximately 1,000 free courses in 195 countries on topics ranging from IT to Math to Business. A monthly subscription to teamtreehouse.com unlocks thousands of hours of instructional content that teaches someone Full Stack Web Development for the cost of dinner.

How to Access Free Education

Education applications are one option. Looking at university websites are another. According to Harvard University‘s website, a Bachelors of Science is made up of three main components; a concentration, general education, and distribution of electives. Each student must complete 32 courses. Here is a list of concentrations all with a link to the required courses. Here are all of the general education requirements and a list of courses for each one; Expository Writing, Language, Quantitative Reasoning, Arts and Humanities, Social Science, Applied Sciences, and Science and Engineering. Search this database for electives and courses that are recommended based on your desired career path.

Bingo, you have the basics of an undergraduate education. Identify 32 classes, match the course numbers with the books from the bookstore, search for the lectures on Harvard’s YouTube channel, type the subject and course level into youtube to find full lectures from other universities, or find the subjects and syllabi on any of these free online learning platforms: Coursera, Khan Academy, Open Culture, Udemy, Academic Earth, Edx, Alison, Apple, Stanford, Harvard , Yale , MIT , Oli. These applications also have certificate programs with credit hours to signify mastery of each subject. With discipline, you’re well on your way to learning the same coursework as any Harvard student for a fraction of the cost, if any cost at all. This approach allows students to learn only the subjects that they’re interested in, at the pace that makes the most sense for there conceptual understanding, financial stability, and mental health.

Changing the Debate

The internet is changing the model of traditional education and this shift should be recognized by corporate America. A portfolio of great work should always mean more than a piece of paper. Society values things that are acquired through struggle and education is no exception.  We respect those that work harder and resent those that work smarter. It’s time to change that. We need to change the debate surrounding education in this new millennial age and spread the word about free online resources. Education is already free. Respect is not.

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