Einztein: Making Learning Free

Posted by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Looking to take a free, college-level, online course? Look no farther than Einztein, a nonprofit that features more than 2,000 courses from 13 countries and across 40 categories. We spoke with Marco Masoni, its 42-year-old, Santa Monica, California-based founder.

GOOD: Prior to starting Einztein, what did you do?

Marco Masoni: While studying law, I taught in a public school in Washington, D.C., and later at a private school in LA. I taught in schools that were under-resourced and schools that were over-resourced, both at a stage when the internet was just beginning to take shape. A few years ago, after working in entertainment finance, I decided to make the permanent switch to education.

G: Why education?

MM: A couple years ago I convinced my nieces to relocate to Los Angeles from other parts of the world, thinking that California had a wonderful public education system that involved going to a good community college, and after two years transferring to one of the four-year state schools. It was a pretty good bargain for the money. Subsequently, the budget crisis has implemented cutbacks, which in the abstract might not seem like such a big deal until you have someone you love looking to transfer and being turned away from four-year schools due to reduced enrollment numbers. It got me thinking that if $40,000 a year isn’t viable and the paths are closed off to cheaper alternatives, what’s a student who wants to get a higher education supposed to do? I decided to focus on new models for education.

G: What is Einztein exactly?

MM: It's intended to serve as a sort of cloud campus, which allows people with the desire to learn to access free courses and connect with one another as they carry out their academic pursuits. It's intended to serve as a platform to enable the exploration and experimentation of new models of education. And while we're not trying to create a model that will work for everyone, I predict that we will soon get to the point where there will be ways for willing students to obtain online degrees at low or no-cost.

G: When did it launch?

MM: The site launched in March and we're still developing some important elements, including our social knowledge networking tool, which is aimed at enriching the experience of studying online.

G: What's your favorite course?

MM: Making Civics Real. The years I spent teaching and my interest in civics come together in that course, which is basically a professional development workshop for teachers of civics.

G: How do courses appear on your site?

MM: First, we review courses for quality purposes. And you'll find everything from as little as eight semester hours all the way up to 100 semester hours. The average is around 15 to 20 hours. It's entirely self-paced and 100 percent free. We do our best to screen out courses that have hidden costs. And we won't include a course that requires you to sign up.

G: Can you get credit?

MM: No, not yet. You can use the knowledge and skills that you gain from the course to help in a job, prepare for college, or supplement your coursework. That’s where Einztein is serving as a platform, and as it evolves, we're looking at ways that a student’s work can be recognized.

G: What do you see as the future of degrees from accredited institutions?

MM: At some point in the near future, I think, it's going to be less important whether a student got credit for a course through a university or through a reputable provider that may or may not be accredited. And while degrees from accredited post-secondary institutions are meaningful, it won’t be the only avenue available to students looking to get a leg up in the marketplace. Other avenues will open up.

G: Where do you see this whole movement headed?

MM: I think that the state of online course design is still incredibly primitive. We're just beginning to understand how to shape a course so that it is compelling and truly educational as opposed to being repurposed content that gets thrown up on the web so schools can generate money or market themselves. But we are still at a very early stage in terms of what the internet has to offer students who are coming at learning from a different place, whether that's because their first language is something other than, say, English, or because they have some other challenge to overcome. We've been pretty dumb about course design up until now. The internet has served our purposes for shopping, communication, news, and entertainment. But it hasn’t been used as effectively as it can be in terms of actually advancing knowledge.