An excellent post by Tony Hirst notes the many classes being offered by entities that are not universities.
As we unpack the ideas of what makes up a class (and, I think, a school and education in general), it is possible we will find that the sharing factor (not the fee or the choice of classes) will be the main distinction between publicly funded higher education classes and the commercial “classes” being offered everywhere by everyone else.
An entity may offer classes in order to to create better-trained workers, or qualified beauticians, or registered health care workers, but if the models, techniques and approaches being used aren’t shared beyond the (paying) students, they aren’t contributing to the greater good. The pedagogical models aren’t shared, and in many cases are trademarked, copyrighted, or otherwise hidden from access.
So even if they’re “free” or “open”, courses offered by publishers, Condé Nast/Vogue, The Economist, The Guardian, Cisco, Google, or The Learning House are closed in their business model. They offer courses, often on contract in order to provide to other closed entities. Their intent is to sell their product, one way or another, even if that product is a method or approach.
But certainly public institutions work for the public good, at least that is why the public pays them. (I am not sure what to think about private universities such as Stanford and MIT in this regard, because they do offer classes with the intention of furthering knowledge, but this knowledge is often closed and very expensive.)
This distinction in intention is why public institutions particularly should be sharing not only their classes, but the knowledge of pedagogy and content embedded in their faculty. (No, I promise not to go off on why all faculty should blog.)
The value of a class, then, is not just in the content, but also in the perspective and intention behind the offering. Would you rather take a class in constitutional law from an institution that wants your money, or from one dedicated to creating an educated citizenry?