AUSTIN, TEXAS -- With college tuition prices spiraling ever upward, it seems counter-intuitive that top schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University would also be racing to make their courses free online. Massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs, have taken off in the last few years as universities have made classes available online, both directly and via services like Coursera.
As the MOOC landscape shifts quickly and schools race to keep up, here are a few of the ways that the trend of free online courses could significantly reshape the higher education landscape.
"When you teach a MOOC, you have to be a deliberate teacher," said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, at the U.S. News 2013 Stem Solutions Conference.
In a MOOC, he said, the professor has to make the lecture leaner and more efficient, without unnecessary digressions. For example, a professor may explicitly state the goals of a particular course segment and be forced to follow through: "The next 11 minutes are going to be devoted to teaching you this concept, this idea, this technique," Demillo explained.
In addition, the potential for a skilled professor's lectures to reach tens of thousands of students at once may broaden universities' focuses, said Andrew Ng, cofounder and co-CEO of Coursera. While many universities place heavy importance on faculty members doing ground-breaking research, MOOCs may also mean that skilled teachers get recognition for their ability to impart knowledge.
"The potential for a professor to teach 100,000 students means now that our teaching can have equal or even greater impact than our research work," said Ng.
More income for universities
While it offers courses for free, Coursera offers a "Signature Track" option, in which a student can pay $30 to $90 and receive official verification that he has completed a course. DeMillo says that this model could provide the answer to making MOOCs sustainable.
"$40 times 100,000 students gets you to income that sustains the activity," he said.
MOOCs also can be good marketing for a university, says another educator.
"What we see with our MOOCs online is it spreads the reputation of our university," said David Leebron, president of Rice University. He adds that putting quality courses online allows a smaller school like Rice to compete with larger or more well-known schools.
"One thing about the virtual world is size literally doesn't matter," he says.
An overhaul in higher education
Because students can get MOOC educations in a piecemeal fashion -- a course in computer science from one college, another in math from another college -- it may mean a societal overhaul about what it means to earn credits and degrees.
"It's really going to change how we think about where you get an education and in how many pieces you get an education," said Leebron.
The results have yet to be seen, but as more students get credentials online, it may not be long before attitudes in the education system start to shift dramatically.