How Online Education Can Benefit from the Social Media Model

According to a recent article and interview in Inside Higher Ed, free online course material from the likes of Harvard, Yale, and MIT has done wonders for the online education movement; however, it is now facing what Inside Higher Ed calls an ‘existential moment’ as a result of the rise of for-profit online education. Especially in light of the budget trouble that many universities face, maintaining an expensive open courseware program seems to make less sense nowadays, and now universities are considering charging for that online content.

In the article, we meet Taylor Walsh, an educational researcher who profiled current online courseware projects at the above schools in addition to examining how for-profit online courses also affect the educational landscape in her new book Unlocking the Gates.

Although these free programs are often lauded for how they make education accessible to people of all backgrounds, Walsh made a very interesting point in the interview. When asked how educators can tell if free online courseware is actually helping students learn, she said, “For free and open resources that consist exclusively of published lecture materials, web analytics data can indicate how much traffic a site receives and from where—but anecdotal feedback or voluntary survey participation have so far been the only means of gauging whether users find this material meaningful.” Without data besides traffic numbers and anecdotal feedback, it’s becoming harder for administrators of these free programs to justify the high costs associated with maintaining them.

How Online Education Can Benefit from the Social Media Model

And yet, there is evidence that suggests that these open and free course programs are actually being used successfully to help other new programs develop curricula for its students. Steve Kolowich, the author of the article, cites the president of Saint Michael’s College as saying he was considering encouraging certain faculty to use open courseware in their classes. So not only is open courseware somewhat helping foreign universities and continuing students but also it might directly help traditional colleges free up their faculty to be more creative in other aspects of course design.

So how, then, can these programs solve the problems of rising expenses and budget worries while still providing great free educational content to all manner of people?

What if these free courseware projects returned to their roots, which I see as largely existing in the themes and foundations of current iterations of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter?

Consider this: Facebook has managed to monetize user-generated content. In a sense, they have figured out the next stage of the internet movement, and are now profiting from it. What if open courseware projects attempted the same thing in order to make their programs self-sufficient? Online educators interested in disseminating educational materials should join together—both non-profits and for-profit institutions—to create an educational network that operates similarly to Facebook or Twitter. Users can access course modules, share lesson plans and so on, and connect with other students. Of course, the users might not be generating all of the educational content, but they would be able to generate important educational discussions about that content. Then the educational network would simply have to sell ad space within that network, and perhaps levy a very slight subscription fee in place of tuition.

Certainly, it is easier to describe the plan in a short blog post than it is to sit down and implement the plan in such a way as to make everyone happy, and there’s also something unattractive about combining ads with the noble pursuit of education, but given the current economic situation in the educational sector, something has to be done, as both non-profits and for-profit schools are in danger of losing ground, which is a terrible situation for those who desire an education.

This guest post is contributed by Tara Miller. Tara is a freelance writer and blog junkie, who blogs about psychology degrees. She can be contacted at

Updated: July 20, 2018 — 12:41 pm

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