20111013 college students
Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on Sept. 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. - 

Kai Ryssdal: Add to the list of things that just ain't what it used to be: college. Today, most campuses have some kind of software system that lets professors post assignments and course notes and exams online. It's known as a learning management system.

Today, the publishing giant Pearson announced a new one -- it's free. Why would a company give something away that they could sell for millions of dollars? As with so many other things in this life, just ask Google.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott explains.

Amy Scott: When college students first arrive on campus these days, they get a log-in to a website, where they'll find course syllabi, read lecture notes, get their grades. They can even chat with other students in the class.

Kenneth Green: And they've pretty much become ubiquitous over the last decade or so.

Kenneth Green directs the Campus Computing Project, which studies technology use in higher education. Pearson is one of its funders. He estimates colleges spend more than $1.5 billion a year on learning management systems. For years, the market has been dominated by a company called Blackboard. Pearson is taking on Blackboard by offering its OpenClass system for free. There are free open source learning management systems like Moodle and Sakai, but Green says colleges have to pay for care and feeding.

Green: The tagline that many of us use to describe open source is, "It's not a free beer, it's a free puppy." You take it home, you still have support costs for the puppy.

Pearson's Matt Leavy says his company will pay for all that.

Matt Leavy: It is truly free. There are no hosting charges. There's no licensing charges.

So how will Pearson make money? Leavy says it's teaming up with Google Apps for Education to launch OpenClass. Like Google, Pearson's hoping its free application will drum up business for its other products, like electronic textbooks and tutoring software.

So it's more like a puppy with its food paid for: You still can't help but buy it toys.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports