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Published 2 April 2015
Gargantuan operations make it look like "free" is sensible - Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. You don't pay for them, or don't think you pay, anyhow - so why pay for anything else - especially coming from the left?

Though asking folks about a recent project I am working on, ZSchool, and their reasons for relating and enrolling or not, did not yield many comments about costs, I suspect this was because people just didn't want to say that to me, or, alternatively, those for whom costs were a big issue didn't want to interact at all. The last possibility was evidenced by one of the faculty who said he frequently encountered young folks saying, "you should be ashamed of asking for fees. You should do this free."

I know that a lot of people feel this represents a radical and socially caring stance. Indeed, that is why they feel it, urge it, etc. I want to reply because I think its actual implications are not, in fact, radical or socially caring. So, let's explore it and see.

I will use ZSchool as the case study, it exists and is not hypothetical, but we could talk about all manner of other things, as well.

So, some folks work to provide an online school where students and faculty can explore and share ideas and skills, add to ideas and skills, refine ideas and skills, and hopefully put them to use to change society for the better - and can do this at a pace they choose, on a schedule they choose, in ways they choose, and in a manner seeking to make it all as affordable as possible.

Of course there are many possible responses, but let's consider one, in particular. "Why isn't it entirely free? How could you, leftists all, charge a fee for knowledge, for information, for school? I want nothing to do with this no matter how desirable some courses may be."

The rejection sounds pretty good. But what does it mean?

Well, if we were to act on it means the people doing the project, in this case ZSchool, would have to do everything volunteer as well as paying all the bills. Or they would have to find some other source of revenues than people paying fees for courses.

Why is it radical, or socially caring, to tell people they should work for nothing, entirely in what would ordinarily be considered overtime, no less, in a society where they of course need income to live?

Why is it radical or socially caring, to say that others should cover the costs of maintenance, equipment, etc.?

What principle, that is radical, is being advanced?

Well answer is presumably not going to be that people should not get an income. So the principle would have to be, knowledge and information and even venues to attain it, and to share it, and to utilize it, should be free.

Okay, what does that mean? Would it really be free? Even if we make courses free?

Consider all the media people get without paying anything. Is it free? No. There are bills and salaries and so on. It is just that that companies pay the bills by buying ads - which means by buying access to people's eyeballs - or companies buy information about people, or, sometimes, donors foot the bill. But bills there are, and the bills are paid, or the entity ceases.

Back to the school. To take ads is out of the question - politically. Maybe others like that in their schools there are ads, vendors, and all the rest - we aren't going that route. We don't have donors, and one wonders, why should donors pay so people who could afford it, and get something free?

Okay, so if we aren't taking ads, and we don't have donors, suppose we offer 20 and later 50 courses. Suppose we make them free and that there are on average 100 people per course.

To prepare and teach a course to 100 people, with considerable interaction, is quite a lot of work. I have taught online. I have taught in college. I have taught in prisons. I have taught in summer schools (and yes, I have done it both free, and for piddling pay). To teach a college class - and I hope don't offend anyone with this - to fifteen or twenty students, say, meeting let's say three hours a week, is not more work - or shouldn't be at any rate - than to teach a class to 100 people online, and all the more so when one is teaching something like will be taught in ZSchool, with an emphasis on relating, helping, participating, and so on.

So what people are saying, who say, hell, do it free and I will look to see if I want to take a course, but charge a fee and I won't even look - is that they want faculty to agree to do a whole lot of work, free.

Why not say that to faculty in high schools, in grade schools, in colleges. What has caused people to come to the odd conclusion that working online warrants no fees? The answer is the odd situation that gargantuan operations make it look like "free" is sensible - Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. You don't pay for them, or don't think you pay, anyhow - so why pay for anything else - especially coming from the left?

Let's do another step in this exploration. Suppose we have a school, as mentioned above, and 50 courses and on average 100 people in each. Of course left faculty aren't trying to get rich. They need payment to free up some time from other pursuits, and perhaps even to help finance other activism they pursue, and so on. And likewise Z, sponsoring it all, isn't trying to become Google - or Harvard. But Z too needs to pay bills, free up time, and perhaps even help finance other activism.

So, while ZSchool has begun with a full fee per course of $100 for eight weeks, and a low income fee per course of $50, and an observer status per course of $30 (for which you can see and read absolutely everything, including other's blogs discussions, etc., you just can't yourself add to the faculty workload by asking questions, writing blogs, and so on) what would the fee pattern look like not to get off the ground, but upon attaining a large scale which would permit reductions?

I can only guess - but probably something like this…$30 full fee, $15 low income, $5 observer. I suspect that might prove viable, and maybe we could even go lower. And then we would have a sustainable, massive operation, serving 5,000 students eight weeks at a time, and probably growing rapidly beyond that, with teachers working hard and feeling great about it. It would yield a "student/faculty" community, that would extend across borders and constituencies, one hopes creating solidarity among many organizations, and perhaps even arrive at some overarching program…plus the more basic and core spread of information, skills, etc. And there would also be funds to grow, to improve delivery and content, and so on, and the faculty wouldn't be under constant life pressure to do less work and even quit, and so on.

Okay, so that is one picture. Now let's ask - what if it was free? Suppose we even assume that somehow it is the same, except for that. The faculty magically agree, session after session, to work teaching steadily growing numbers of people, giving steadily more time, all for no income. Z somehow foots all the bills - that is magical thinking too - without having revenues. What would we have gained, added?

Well, we would have added to the belief, feeling, stance, view, commitment, that free stuff is good, and paid stuff is bad. But would that be a gain, or a loss.

Well, who would be in position to teach? The answer, of course, is only those ample independent income and free time. A single mother could not teach. Someone with a low income job and family couldn't teach. A student likely couldn’t teach. And so on. What a horrible bias to build in.

Who could sponsor components or another parallel effort? Only organizations with huge budgets, garnered from - ads or large donors. And no organizations. Or faculty, would garner revenues with which to enlarge radical activities.

And what would all this be saying to students about their brick and mortar teachers - that they are rip off artists - or that they deserve more, not less, from society?

I won't continue - except to offer just one of the many emails I did receive from people, wondering about why folks aren’t flocking to take courses…

I don't know what to say on a lot of why sign-up rates aren't yet higher for ZSchool. The way I looked at it when I signed up for the two courses that I did was like 'hey, hopefully I'll not be lazy, get a lot out of the classes, learn stuff, digitally meet people, have access to faculty I really like or find interesting' and like 'worst case-scenario I don't find the time or effort to participate like I should and my sign-up cost will still be going to a good cause,' so in that sense it seemed like a win-win to me.  I hope I won't be lazy and will try to put in time and effort w/the classes.  

My biggest source of worry or hesitancy signing up was probably not having the time to do courses like I should and feeling ashamed that I was letting teachers I thought a lot of down. I signed up anyway because I hope that even if I am a horrible student my money nonetheless helps. I don't get the not giving money part, even at my shitty wages I can afford to do a little, it just seems like the easiest thing to me.  

Compare this person's view to that of someone who says, "Online school, radical? Hell if it isn't free it isn't radical. Count me out. What hypocrisy!"

Which is more radical, more caring, more - well - in tune with reality both as we live it, and as we would like it?

There might be many reasons why people don’t want to pay. Lack of perceived value, concern about getting on the wrong list by paying on-line for “radical” information, etc… BTW, does ZComm.org use "free" (a.k.a. Open Source) software?
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