A few generations ago few imagined the digital age where content, games and long distance phone conversations would be among the free offerings in the world. And now even as there is much discussion over the impact on the poor of skyrocketing college tuition, none other than the vaunted Massachusetts Institute of Technology is coming to the rescue. Beginning in 2012 M.I.T. will offer its courses online, free of charge to anyone in the world. If you can log on, you can learn. Of course, we can’t expect that M.I.T. will grant degrees for free online while charging its students around $40,000. But those who demonstrate competence in the subjects can get an official certificate through the special division called M.I.T.x. So it seems the future will turn on whether we think of educational accomplishment in terms of a diploma or perseverance.
Along the way other prestigious universities have offered free classes online. Last fall Stanford University famously received more than 100,000 signups for its online class on artificial intelligence. It isn’t clear how many actually completed the rigorous class but Stanford was also offering free database and machine learning classes. For years M.I.T. posted video of its courses via OpenCourseWare. But due to advanced technology, the new platform will allow for a more interactive experience where students can communicate with each other. In the future employers may have to grapple with the choice between hiring a student with a traditional diploma from a less prestigious college versus someone with the M.I.T. certificates from free courses. Chances are other higher learning institutions will follow suit, and eventually there will be the dilemma of getting people to pay tuition when they can get the education for free.