Online University: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Education

Online schools are drastically different from the schools that we know. When Steve, an imaginary student at an online school goes to class, he wears pajamas, chomps on Cheetos and smells a tad funky. He does not bother his classmates with his odor because they are scattered around the world. All of his classes, tests and study sessions can take place wherever he maintains his wireless connection. From the bathroom to Starbucks, his learning locations and opportunities are endless.
One entrepreneur wants to apply this system of education to a worldwide level and wants to make it free. Shai Reshef is attempting to start a tuition-free Internet college called University of the People. According to The New York Times, participants will pay low fees for enrollment and tests. The price will be determined by how much money the applicant has. Classes will be taught by both volunteers and paid professors.
The benefits of such a system, should it work, are endearing. People around the world from Somalia to Guatemala who may not be able to afford an education will now be able to better themselves through learning. Education will no longer be a privilege of the wealthy, allowing the entire planet to be on an equal playing field. Anyone able to find an Internet connection and a few dollars could potentially make a career for themselves.
That being said, these possibilities are wonderful only on an imaginary planet where all our dreams come true. The problem is that we reside on Earth. Consequently, a number of problems will inevitably arise from this system.
The first problem with such a system is quality control. How do you ensure that the diploma someone was awarded after approximately two years of online courses carries the same weight as the degree I will earn after four years at UC Irvine? Millions of students take online courses these days, but people still spit out hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their children to colleges for years because those online courses do not hold the same prestige.
The Internet is also an untamed monster. The Internet is a wild west of information with people able to do what they please, so policing it is nearly impossible. Thanks to the anonymity, people feel almost no responsibility.
A learning environment can hardly be put in the same place where people steal thousands of movies and songs while typing scathing lies about anyone they wish. Learning requires face-to-face interaction and accountability. A professor or graduate student needs to tell you what you have done wrong, or right. The moment people understand that someone does not know precisely who they are, they feel no obligation to act responsibly, a fact that has been supported by numerous psychological studies.
In addition to the Internet’s inherent problems, there is also the matter of the staff. Without tuition, it will be near impossible to guarantee quality professors. Despite what you may think, your professors are also people with lives outside of school. They require nutrients just like the rest of us. In addition, a school without tuition cannot afford to fund research. Many professors tolerate the pains of teaching so they may continue their exploration of knowledge. Without the draw of research, money or pay, quality professors would not flock to any college, let alone an online one.
A further problem arises when one thinks about the cultural problems of having a class containing everyone from around the world. If the class is taught in English, typically considered the world’s foremost language of learning, then how will students from Africa or Asia keep up? Only those with college-level English proficiency would be able to do so. These people already have an education, so the point of educating those previously unable to afford it becomes meaningless. Teaching a class in any other language only raises the same problems.
The university has another problem with cultural differences. America’s SATs and other standardized tests suffer from cultural bias and these are given to people all in the same country. Imagine the problems if the most hated exams from our high school years were administered to people in Argentina or Indonesia. People from around the world have vastly different foundations of knowledge and it is virtually impossible to come up with any sort of program that does not unfairly favor any one culture.
The idea of a tuition-free, online school is tempting, but impossible. The Internet is too young and untamed. Online colleges have not garnered enough prestige or quality. Without the proper funding, one cannot guarantee a quality education. Providing classes on a global scale requires a scaling of language and cultural barriers that may prove difficult for any professor, let alone unpaid ones. Shai Reshef has noble goals, but they are also impossible ones.

Kevin Pease is a fourth-year psychology and social behavior major. He can be reached at kpease@uci.edu.