It’s easy to grow cynical as institutions of higher education become more business-like, driven by what is best for their wallets rather than their students.
But the University's move toward offering open online courses for anyone to take, regardless of enrollment status, demonstrates a commitment to shaping an educated and informed global citizenry.
Massive open online courses, called MOOCs in the field of higher education, allow anyone with computer access to learn from top-notch academics and scholars through video lectures and slides for free or for a low cost.
These free online courses help democratize education for those who crave knowledge but might lack the ability to pursue a college degree due to financial or other constraints.
Some estimates have pegged the cost of creating the courses at $50,000 each, and the move toward MOOCs is an indication that the University is financially confident.
It is worth it to spend resources in the name of sharing knowledge with others. The positive returns for GW might not be in the form of money, but that does not mean it will have been a lost cause.
And professors will feel encouraged to join the online education community because it will afford them the chance to reach a wider audience than in a traditional classroom setting. Conversely, having students that are genuinely interested in the subject matter makes for a better learning environment.
For those truly invested in higher education, massive open online courses are a win-win.
An online program of this nature could also afford GW indirect benefits. For example, if a student takes a free online course through GW while in high school, he or she might be inspired by the professor and choose to apply to the University as an undergraduate.
The courses are also a sign of prestige. With this move, GW will be joining the ranks of a small group of elite universities at the academic vanguard. It is a direct way to increase the University’s publicity at a time when institutions across the country are competing for an international audience.
Critics of these burgeoning programs might say that if GW decides to offer online courses, it will be trying to blaze a path in areas that have already been tread by other elite institutions. They say GW would be a small fish in a very large pond.
But GW can make an impact. The University should plan to create courses in areas where it can exercise its strengths – subjects that have not necessarily been extensively explored by other institutions online, like government and policy.
This is why universities exist – to educate. It is noble to improve access to education and worldwide enlightenment.