A college education in the United States can be one of the most costly in the world. For many young people, college isn’t an option because of the economic strain it represents for their families. And many older people who would like to attend classes must forego studies to make ends meet.

But thanks to the power of voluntary collaboration, technology tools and the reach of the Internet, college-level classes and learning resources are becoming more and more accessible to anyone who has the interest and an Internet connection. But can you really get an education for free online? Yes and no. I set out to try to see what I could learn from two high-profile initiatives, Wikiversity and iTunes U.

When we hear the words “online university,” many of us tend to cringe, thinking of the ads that appear incessantly online for diploma mills promising anyone a Bachelor’s degree in no time with little to no effort. But the term is also becoming used to describe the phenomenon of the open university, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to access courses, media and resources on the topic of their choice, sometimes without a fee.

Open University seal

One of the most successful examples of this model is the UK’s Open University (OU). Recognized within the EU as an accredited university with full time faculty and staff, some of OU’s courses are free. With 180,000 studying full or part time around the world, the Open University and others of its kind have given broader access to education. What’s remarkable about this concept is that the student is granted a degree at the end of his or her course of study, something that newer, less traditional online learning initiatives can’t deliver. [Check COMMENTS below for a clarification on OU’s pay vs. free courses.]

Wikiversity: Collaborative Teaching and Learning

Last year, the Wikipedia Foundation announced the beta launch of its Wikiversity, a “multidimensional social organization dedicated to learning, teaching, research and service.” Wikiversity isn’t an online university per se, but rather a repository of information on subjects one might study at a university. The site is organized into “faculties” and “departments,” letting you access materials for learning about a wide range of topics — from South African Contract Law to Hitler’s Germany. Since Wikiversity, like Wikipedia, depends solely on voluntary submissions, it’s often impossible to complete a whole course on something. Information comes in bits and pieces, and in the cases of some faculties, there are huge holes where information should be.

Since I’ve always been so bad at Algebra, and the Wikiversity College Algebra course seemed fairly complete, I chose this subject as a starting point. To get started, I only had to select a “learning project” (in my case, College Algebra) and click on it, and this took me to the main page of the course. I then read through the overview, and got acquainted with what will be covered in the class, as well as the materials I would need. The “books” I needed were located on the Wikibooks site and the University of Kentucky website.

Excited at the prospect of getting started on my 10-15 week Algebra course, I quickly realized that while the course is laid out just fine, many of the elements I’ll need for study are missing. I have my books, I have my instructors, teaching assistants and tutors, but only one of the lessons in the course syllabus is actually available online. It looks as if the course was created last year with great zeal, then abandoned before it was ever completed. So instead of learning College Algebra from beginning to end, I’m left only with a short lesson on FOIL and algebraic manipulation, my books and my tests, the latter of which will be hard to complete since I haven’t learned much. Oh well.

While the idea of Wikiversity is great, it’s not quite there yet. In attempting to supplement what was lacking for my Algebra course, I actually found more on Wikipedia than at the Wikiversity. While other areas of the site might be richer in content, I wasn’t able to access what I wanted to learn. It’s kind of like registering for classes and realizing the one you want is full. I got stuck in Geometry, but I really wanted Algebra.

iTunes U: Top-Tier Learning at a Distance

In 2006, Apple quietly launched iTunes U, an initiative to help universities get their content — mainly the audio from lectures — online and available to students through their popular iTunes application. While the original idea was for current students to be able to “attend” classes from home through podcasts, anyone can take a class at say, Stanford or Harvard — at least the classes that are available online.

i-6a87867044aabb1bb1436735be5ecd48-iTunes U.jpg

It’s no secret that an Ivy League education is out of reach for many, but with iTunes U, ivory towers fall and anyone anywhere can listen in on classes at these institutions. I, however, opted for a humbler state school experience: UC Berkeley, which offers a course in new media, “The Foundations of American Cyberculture”, taught by Professor Greg Niemeyer. Instead of combing through text as on Wikiversity to get a sense for what the class would be like, I simply hit “play” to hear the professor kick off the first class and get acquainted with us, the students.

Professor Niemeyer is an engaging speaker, which is great since his class is offered only in audio on iTunes U; with a lesser orator, I would probably have fallen asleep. The first class is the humdrum introduction and overview, but subsequent classes are fascinating. We explore how cyberculture and new media have created a post-biological period in history in which we are more concerned with cultural evolution than genetic evolution. I learn that many experts link technology and men’s quest for creation in it to womb envy because of their inability to create physical beings. Suddenly I remember what it was like to be in college and enthralled with ideas that if spoken outside classroom walls warrant strange looks.

But none of that really has to do with iTunes U. The content provided by the professor is engaging, but the platform upon which it lives is just that — a platform. If I had taken another class, my experience might not have been so enlightening. And even in Niemeyer’s class, I began losing interest when later classes include the professor showing videos that I can’t see. The class at Berkeley is watching cyborgs and crazed computers, and I’m left in the dark. So I drop out of class.

Innovation or Hype?

Before iTunes U was even a thought, universities were offering their content to the world online. The homepages of professors with study notes and homework assignments for their students came way before the iPod. And it’s this very fact that has drawn criticism from some in the academic community, who wonder if Apple is really just forcing iTunes adoption on faculty and students. Last year, Jon Udell of Infoworld quoted a university instructor who attended an Apple on-campus presentation as saying “it was made explicitly clear (in that I asked about it and he told me point blank) that iTunes U is seen specifically as a driver to iTunes adoption. That’s their bottom line on the issue.”

And while the Wikiversity idea is, in theory, revolutionary, it seems extremely hard to pull off without an engaged university faculty community online. While Wikipedia’s users are prolific in their contributions, it might take a bit more to rile the great minds into action on Wikiversity. The established MIT OpenCourseWare online archive of classes offers deep content and real courses on nearly anything under the sun, so perhaps sharing content with projects such as this could help broaden the offerings for Wikiversity.

Beyond the Open University model, are we any closer to providing free access to a college education with these initiatives? It depends on whether you define “college education” as self-edifying studies or an actual degree. While initiatives like iTunes U serve to turn on technophiles to information and resources that they wouldn’t normally access and provide on-campus students classes they might have missed, it won’t put me any closer to a degree in new media, or even a certification for that matter. And while listening to lectures on iTunes sounds more sexy than taking classes on UC Berkeley Extension’s Distance Learning site, only one will give me academic credit and it’s the one I have to pay for.

In the end, I think the tools are great, and education is what you make of it. An unlikely comment on the subject of online learning comes from Cuban President Fidel Castro, who in his regular column this week talked about the topic of brain drain — young, bright professionals leaving poorer countries for greener pastures in the U.S. and Europe. His message was: “Whoever has a computer has all published knowledge at their disposal and the privileged memory of the machine belongs to them too.” Too bad very few people in Cuba actually have access to the Internet.

What do you think? Are Wikiversity and iTunes U a step in the right direction toward opening up education to more people? Are there any other online learning projects you use or would recommend? What can be done to make learning more accessible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.