The Emergence of the Free Education Revolution

zero marginal cost education jeremy rifkin

“Student debt is at an all-time high and we expect the bubble to burst as housing did in 2008”, this a statement that is being repeated over and over by forecasters who believe that the current debt-driven education model is not sustainable.

There has been a rising disdain for educational loans as they burden students for life. A graduate will have a debt-burden for at least 10 years after completing their qualification and this has an adverse effect to general human progress. As a consequence of the unhappiness of the debt model, a number of social entrepreneurs have come up with creative models that ensure that they relieve students of education-induced debt.

Firstly, with the emergence of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), more and more people are opting for short skills relevant to the career they would like to pursue. MOOCs are cheaper because there is no physical interaction and can be taken from anywhere in the world. The marginal cost of producing the courses is almost zero as clearly outlined by Jeremy Rifkin in his book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society“.

Secondly, some universities are looking for innovative ways to alleviate students from loan debt and have come up with Income Sharing Agreements (ISAs)

Purdue University is the poster-child for this innovative way to pay for school fees. Another one that comes to mind as a pioneer in ISAs is the African Leadership University (ALU). Instead of relying on loans and scholarships a student covers the cost of education with an “income-share agreement” (ISA), a contract with the university whereby education is free and upon completion, the graduate pays back a percentage of his/her earnings for a fixed period after graduation.

The fiercest rejection of exorbitant student loans thus far has come from the “Fees Must Fall” movement in South Africa. Violence rocked all public tertiary education institutions in the country and prolonged college shutdowns ensued. The movement is credited with pushing the ANC-led government to change policy and announce free education for approximately 90% of the nation’s post-secondary students. These protests got a lot of analysts questioning the real cost of education and whether there was a more efficient way of allocating educational resources for sustainable human capital development.

The Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley group dedicated to Igniting Conversations to Encourage Innovation and Economic Growth, says the key problem in the coming decades will be finding enough truly qualified innovators, thinkers and doers to build the next generation of companies and technologies. Whether or not somebody even has a chance at the level of education required to succeed in life depends on many factors, most of which are outside their control. These include:

  • Who your parents are, and the nature of their background
  • Which school district you live in
  • Whether or not you lucked into good teachers
  • Whether or not you found a good mentor
  • Access to extracurricular classes, materials, projects
  • What books you had access to
  • Whether you had access to online resources
  • Your social network consists of people with similar backgrounds

It is a given that some of these problems are unsolvable, for example, no one gets to choose their parents – everyone has to work with the cards that the lottery of life dealt them. The emergence of zero-marginal-cost educational content (e.g. Youtube, EDx, MathsGee) can help even the odds, level the gap, and at least give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a fighting chance. Many of the problems with traditional educational models stem from what are effectively high per-seat costs, location dependence, or just plain old luck.

The secret of  Zero Marginal Cost Education is zero marginal cost. It eliminates the need for rich, good parents, doesn’t require the student to buy expensive books or pay for lots of money extra-curricular activities.

As the marginal cost of education approaches zero, restrictive paywalls that hinder students’ access to access online resources will be the exception rather than the norm.

While it’s not a new idea, it was actually initiated by the emergence of public libraries after the Gutenberg press enabled mass production of books. The only shift that presents an opportunity to scale access to education is as a result of the nature of the internet which removes location dependence as in the case of public libraries. Now anyone can have access to the best books, lectures and discussion forums from anywhere in the world. This is a revolution that has changed how people create, distribute and consume educational information. The breadth and depth of available material are now unbounded.

MathsGee, Khan Academy, OpenCourseware, Codeacademy and even Wikipedia don’t care where you are located, whether you have a reasonable local library, or how much you spend on extra-curriculars.

In short, Zero Marginal Cost educational resources help even the odds, particularly for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. They may not be as optimal as a top-notch class taught in person, but for many students, they are far better than the alternative.

But why does this tie into the talent shortage being experienced by the different emergent industries? In many ways, we don’t have a shortage of potential talent, we have a shortage of realized talent. For every Stanford graduate working for the latest tech startup, how many students with the same potential talent didn’t even make it to college, slide through on an easy major because they lack the background for anything else, or drop out of high school due to sheer discouragement and despair? Zero marginal cost education helps students of all backgrounds realize their talent, perform to their potential, and develop those 21st century skills that are critical for meaningful 21st century careers.

If the trend identified and articulated by Jeremy Rifkin, then what is the possibility of “Zero Marginal Cost Education”, being the default model of the future? How can governments and institutions of learning change their modus operandi to be aligned with this impending revolution in education? Is the MOOC revolution going to regain momentum because as things stand, it has failed to fundamentally change the education model?