Before we know it, the idyllic, tree-lined university campus with its stately brick buildings, grand lecture halls, and manicured lawns may become a relic of the past. What may prompt the demise of the traditional university? Massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Whether (and when) this will actually happen was precisely the question at a recent seminar, hosted by The Ohio State University’s Harvey Goldberg Center. It was evident that MOOCs have some in the ivory towers spooked, for two reasons: One, they’re free—and how does one compete against free? Two, elite universities are kickstarting MOOCs. Coursera, of which OSU is a participant, is affiliated with top-notch universities like Stanford and Duke. MOOCs are also catching on in Europe as well. So, unlike for-profit online providers of education, such as the University of Phoenix, MOOCs are both free and linked to prestigious institutions.

Despite the upside to MOOCs, as they’re currently designed, it’s far from inevitable that they’ll outflank the traditional university any time soon. They don’t yet grant credit or degrees, and they certainly don’t field football teams. But, it’s clear they have the potential to send the traditional model of higher education into the artifact bin—especially if higher-ed costs continue to balloon.

MOOCs could put an end to the traditional K-12 education model as well. As currently designed, MOOCs could be used in upper grade levels. Gifted students or students with a particular, niche interest could take these online courses and receive credit for them. Think about a top-of-the-class senior, who’s exhausted all of her school’s science courses: Might she not want to enroll in edX’s Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, taught by an MIT professor? Or maybe there’s a high-schooler with a particular interest in computer software. He could enroll for free to take Coursera’s Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes, taught by a Princeton professor.

MOOCs could be adapted all the way down to middle and elementary schools. Fordham’s Checker Finn suggests that elite K-12 schools, such as Dalton and Andover, could dive into the MOOC market by developing courses for younger students. Sure, you’d still need a teacher to facilitate learning and manage the classroom—but schools may not need a teacher in the traditional sense. We are already seeing this in K-12 in models like Rocket Ship and Carpe Diem.

Yes, there are a plentitude of questions for Ohio’s policymakers to ponder in advance of wholesale (or even small-to moderate-scale) adoption of the MOOC model of education—whether for higher education or K-12 education. Who is accountable for quality and who ensures the kids actually learn? How is credit granted for taking these courses—and how can schools verify that the course was, in fact, completed? How does funding work for free courses? Who sets prices?

In recent blog posts, economists Gary Becker and Richard Posner both suggest that the MOOCs have the potential to revolutionize education, and the costs associated with it. So, while there are many open questions and push-back from groups with an interest in sustaining the traditional models of education, MOOCs are very likely the next giant leap forward in improving and democratizing education. Wikipedia put Encyclopedia Britannica out of business—as did iTunes end the age of compact discs. Both innovations, most would agree, have vastly improved and increased access to education and entertainment material. Might MOOCs (or whatever evolution of MOOCs eventually survives) end the age of the traditional classroom and school?

Item Type: