You've probably heard of MIT's OpenCourseWare program by now; or at least, you will have heard that some universities are offering versions of their courses online for free. But what does that even mean? That anybody with an Internet connection can now get a Bachelor's degree from MIT? The answer is still, more or less, "it's complicated."
Historically, universities were not inclusive places. While you can find free traditional university education (Norway's much-lauded education system comes to mind, as well as some other European countries), the vast majority of the world simply didn't have access to higher education before the emergence of online technologies. This made higher education largely an exercise in class and gender role reinforcement. In more recent decades, universities have been aggressively monetizing, which theoretically eliminates class and gender as exclusionary factors but more realistically simply acts to reinforce the exclusivity and inaccessibility of further study.
The idea of open sourcing university studies was initially seen in Germany in 1999, but was popularised by MIT launching OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2002. The idea was to facilitate learning using the rapidly increasing power of the Internet; students could have access to a wealth of knowledge to supplement their studies, better prepare themselves for university and in some cases, get a leg up on difficult subjects. This wasn't anything like a full degree or even full subjects—it was more like access to reading materials and resources.
Fast forward to 2012 and the OCW program had exploded across America and all over the world. However, online learning had also become standard, with many universities offering online degrees that provided the same qualification as traditional classroom courses. Now, it's expected that universities will offer a wide range of supplementary online materials to accompany on-campus learning, and it's possible to gain full qualifications without ever setting foot on university grounds. OCW has subsequently evolved, with the concept of the "massive open online course", or MOOC, rapidly gaining traction.
Coursera, the most popular MOOC currently, has over 7.2 million users and connects a large group of higher education institutions with users, who can access course materials for free. This is a for-profit business model that adds value through various means such as offering certification for a nominal fee and providing professional recruitment connection services. edX is MIT's non-profit version of Coursera, which is built using open source software. Both organizations seek to redefine the way education is consumed, with the aim being lower cost and wider distribution.
Returning to the initial question of what this global shift represents, it is now possible to access a vast amount of study resources from universities and other higher learning institutions, both humble and prestigious. Some people have a knee-jerk reaction of questioning why they even paid for their degree, and how we should expect universities to remain successful if nobody pays. Those familiar with open source will recognise these arguments; people use the same rhetoric to dismiss the open source technology movement as a waste of time or even damaging to enterprise profitability. However, as explained on the OCW website, universities are greatly enriched by involvement in open source education:
"Through OCW, educators improve courses and curricula, making their schools more effective; students find additional resources to help them succeed; and independent learners enrich their lives and use the content to tackle some of our world’s most difficult challenges, including sustainable development, climate change, and cancer eradication."
Basically, the argument is the same: MOOCs and OCW offer the resources, but not the support. Paying for a degree means you have access to the full array of educational support on offer. But just like other areas of open source, MOOC and OCW communities are full of a wide range of students, teachers, professionals, and practitioners working together. The same principles apply to education as they do everywhere else in open source. Get involved, be part of a community, be empowered, and contribute to the wider dissemination of knowledge for your own benefit as much as anybody else's.
More resources: What is open education? and Youth using open source (a free eBook).