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Communications of the ACM

Technology strategy and management

Are the Costs of 'Free' Too High in Online Education?

2012 MIT symposium on The Future of Education

In fall 2012, MIT hosted a symposium examining the influence of technology on new teaching and learning methods in higher education.

Credit: Dominick Reuter

Considering the economic implications as educational institutions expand online learning initiatives.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the July 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Michael A. Cusumano's Viewpoint "Are the Costs of 'Free' Too High in Online Education?" (Apr. 2013) gave an essentially positive answer despite hedging with phrases like, "Maybe, but maybe not." It was clear from the context which side he is on, saying, for example, "The industries I follow closely are still struggling to recover from the impact of free." Comparing traditional institutions of higher learning with online courses is somewhat unfair, as it involves contrasting institutions that have undergone decades or even centuries of refinement with a new paradigm still in its infancy. Moreover, face-to-face interaction in a classroom is wonderful under ideal conditions, but universities in much of the world simply lack ideal conditions; for example, face-to-face interaction is unlikely when a disengaged professor teaches hundreds of students in a large lecture hall where those students have difficulty even seeing the professor or projected slides or reading the scribbles on the board and are often in uncomfortable seats or no seat at all in the case of overenrolled classes. Students sometimes forego courses they prefer in favor of available ones and might wait weeks before receiving feedback on homework submissions or exam papers because the professor is too busy or there are too few teaching assistants. Online courses have been successful in part because they can provide immediate feedback and facilitate peer-to-peer interaction, as well as flexibility and variety. Institutions of higher learning must adapt to this wonderful new resource, and not take a defensive stance, insisting on business as usual.

Behrooz Parhami
Santa Barbara, CA

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