Free stuff on the web is changing everything. The new ways we communicate with each other and the resources available are amazing. Can you imagine life without Google Maps? However, it often makes MBAs (like me) scratch their head wondering, "who pays for this?"
Following the release of Chris Anderson's Free, Fred Wilson (avc.com) reiterated his views on Freecomonics, "if you don't start with free on the Internet, most companies will never get paid."
Education lags the business sector in technology innovation by about a decade. Because it is predominantly a public delivery system, the pressure for innovation and efficiency are simply not as strong as they are in the private sector. While this is frustrating to some of us that think we could do a better job educating young people, it does give us a chance to watch new technology be developed and deployed in other sectors. Watching widely adopted sites like Facebook and YouTube struggle to turn a profit will prove to be a useful lesson.
We're beginning to see Freeconomic effects in education:
• Free textbooks: CK-12 and Flatworld Knowledge are marketing free high school and college textbooks
• Open content: Hewlett Foundation has been a leader in open content supporting projects including Monterey Institute's comprehensive math and science curriculum Hippocampus
• Open software: open operating systems and productivity tools are gaining penetration in education
• Learning networks: dozens of free social networking sites are connecting educators
So, who pays for all of this free stuff? Education has the benefit of substantial philanthropic support--both non-profit and for-profit organizations have and will benefit from foundation grants. But the innovations likely to achieve scale and impact will have a business model behind them. In this regard, Wireless Generation is showing the way; they launched FreeReading.net, an open primary reading curriculum supported by fee-based assessment and training.
Other web 2.0 edu-sites that gain wide adoption will be monetized by ads and sponsorships as well as premium services. Combined with cheap access devices and increasingly ubiquitous broadband, free stuff will help ease adoption of education technology and will increasingly personalize learning.
New schools that blend online and onsite learning are becoming increasingly common. Just three years ago, the total cost of ownership of a laptop was over $2000. Netbooks now cost about $100 per year to own--well within the reach of even cash strapped districts trying to stretch class sizes.
Education Freeconomics got a boost last month when Gov. Schwarzenegger jumped on the free stuff bandwagon out of financial desperation. Obama's stimulus package includes a $650 million innovation fund that, with parallel foundation grants, will also give a boost to EdTech.
Like the rest of the economy, Freecomonics will play a role in reshaping education. It will occasionally be confusing and there will be a few missteps by entrepreneurs as well as school districts. Personal digital learning services, a mixture of free and fee, will replace the model we grew up with--25 kids in a classroom reading the same textbook and answering questions at the end of the chapter. And our kids will be better for it.
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