If you are unfamiliar with the idea of education as a form of cultural capital, it’s easy to think of the idea as static. You either have it or you don’t. The Open Education movement, as recently described in the New York Times (“As Colleges Make Courses Available Free Online, Others Cash In”), however nicely illustrates that education cultural capital works as a complex dynamic, an economy or an ecosystem. It’s capital, and so it doesn’t simply accumulate, it circulates, and as it circulates it changes, sometimes subtly.
In this case,the implicit question seems to be, “what happens to the educational capital of, say, Harvard or Yale if they give away their course materials.” In one sense, of course, these course materials (objectified capital) allow access to the institutional capital; if you invest the time and energy, you should be able to accumulate the same capital as any other student. It’s not so simple, of course. As the educators cited in the piece imply, the capital is transformed by severing it so radically from the setting–the classroom–in which it is accumulated.
You can’t accumulate the social capital of an elite degree from a distance, not without the development of particular systems, such as hybrid courses. Institutions risk little by making this material freely available; in fact, they broaden institutional capital by sharpening its philanthropic image, a necessity a liberal democratic society. It’s not a give away, in fact, but a form of accumulation. What’s interesting, of course, is that others– individually or collectively– might find ways to leverage the open source materials in new ways.