Well, the inevitable has finally happened. Coursera, one of the most popular online learning communities and MOOC (Massive Online Open Classroom) syndicates, has finally found a way to make money off of their students. Their recently unveiled "Signature Track" courses, which are paid-for versions of pre-existing courses, award completion with a "Verified Certificate" and a custom URL where employers can see the student's grades. Although taking a Signature Track course costs somewhere between $30-$100 at this point, I have no doubt that there will soon be reasons that verifying you've done the online course work will cost more.
I'm not cynical about this because I believe that all education should be free. Far from it. I don't believe that receiving education is a right, because that entails that education is something that can be given and received, like any other good. We can see how well that model of thinking is serving our students in public schools, who know that passively sitting through the required number of years of schooling is all it takes to be a certifiably educated person.
I'm cynical about this move of Coursera's, rather, because it's a movement in the direction of the over-inflated college degree. In practice, by giving certificates of completion only to those who've paid, it's saying that the students who chose to pay for the Signature Track of a given course are more educated than those who didn't. It reinforces the idea that has so haunted our public education system and its attempts at reform, that the amount of money spent on education is directly proportional to the quality of the education - an idea that has proven very false in recent history.
Charging for a service delivered is understandable - paying for a Coursera class would be akin to paying for a private tutor, which is definitely a valuable service to many. But Coursera doesn't charge for its service (all courses besides the Signature Track ones are free), it charges for the certificate. For an organization that professes to care about true learning, Coursera sure does seem to be placing a lot of stock in a piece of paper that implies learning.