Two things about higher education have become clear. First, your children need it more than ever to stay competitive -- and so might you, if you need to upgrade for a fast-changing job market. Second, the model colleges use to deliver that education is broken. Rising tuition, high student debt, and stingier funding for public colleges are making it more difficult for families to keep up.
So it's hard not to get excited about this: Right now, for the unbeatable price of $0, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Anant Agarwal is teaching a class on circuits and electronics to thousands of people online -- no MIT application required. Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, and other top schools have also started open courses for everyone.
The academic world is buzzing with the notion that this could change, well, everything. "We are at a pivotal moment," says former Princeton president William Bowen. "Two forces are combining: extraordinary technological progress with economic need."
True, it's a long way (and many spinning "video loading" icons) from here to a day when students can put together respected degrees with Ivy simulations.
While logging in is free and easy, getting official credit for what you learn still isn't. Online courses have bugs, including raucous student discussion boards and clumsy grading systems, and for many they are an inferior substitute for real classrooms. Yet there's promise here for adults who want a new career skill, for traditional students looking for learning aids, and for anyone hoping to speed the path to a degree. More change is coming.
Here's what you and your kids should know to make the most of it.
You can really sit in on courses with MIT profs
Agarwal's course is known in education jargon as a MOOC, or massive open online course. Web courses and online degrees have been around for years. As the name implies, MOOCs are different for their size (with tens of thousands of students at a time), their free price tag, and, frankly, the cachet of the schools that started them.
A typical massive online class includes several short recorded lecture modules each week and reading assignments. You'll chat with other students online, and there's homework, which may be graded by a computer or by peers. Some classes offer a few online meetings in which professors address questions posed by students. Although there may be a weekly schedule, it's flexible.
"I completed the first three weeks of classes while patrolling the Bering Sea," says Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Greg Tozzi, who took a finance course taught by a Georgia Tech professor.
Tozzi's class wasn't delivered by Georgia Tech, but through a website called Coursera.org, which offers more than 300 classes from 62 schools. Two Stanford professors kicked off the for-profit venture with more than $22 million raised from colleges and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. (Where profits will come from, as with lots of tech startups, is hazy.)
Harvard and MIT have started a similar nonprofit hub at edX.org, where you can learn Greek classics from a Harvard prof or quantum mechanics via Berkeley.
Don't want to wait for a course to start? Carnegie Mellon has free self-paced courses that you can try anytime at oli.cmu.edu, and so does the nonprofit Saylor.org.
Another for-profit site, Udacity.com, mostly offers classes without a university's stamp, but it features star teachers like founder Sebastian Thrun, a co-inventor of Google's experimental self-driving car, who teaches artificial intelligence for robotics. It was Thrun who sparked the frenzy for MOOCs in 2011, when he opened his 300-student Stanford class to web auditors, and 160,000 signed up.
No, it's not the same as going to MIT
About 23,000 online students passed Thrun's computerized exams. Here's what they got: a sense of accomplishment and a PDF from Thrun suitable for printing and framing.
While Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the like may be building massive classes, they are not interested in letting you get Stanford, Harvard, or MIT credit.
The MIT-built MOOCs offer a chance to earn an"MITx" -- not MIT -- credential that won't on its own help you toward a degree but might look nice at the bottom of a résumé next to other continuing-ed classes.
Coursera classes developed by Princeton, on the other hand, don't even offer a certificate. And while a Duke MOOC on Coursera may earn you a "statement of accomplishment" from the instructor, Duke won't award its own paying students credit hours for taking one.
Schools are guarding their prestige carefully. One of the valuable things about an MIT diploma, after all, is that it tells people you are one of the brilliant few who got into MIT. But there are also real quality differences between MOOCs and the classroom.
Aaron Krolik is one of 450 Duke students paying about $4,200 in tuition to take an on-campus course on genetics and evolution this semester; Duke has a free online course using the same lectures. Krolik doesn't feel ripped off.
"I think there is a lot more that you get out of going to a university than the information," Krolik says. And he does not mean Blue Devils basketball. He and his classmates see professor Mohamed Noor three times a week, and Noor uses extra class time to answer questions and help students with additional exercises.
Noor says five of his Duke students have dropped out or are in danger of failing. By comparison, roughly 10,000 of 12,000 online students who watched the first lecture either are failing or have given up.
Soon, Ivy classes may be part of a State U. degree
If massive classes were nothing but an elaborate new adult-enrichment program, the story would end here. But the growth of free online courses is happening at a time when the link between where you learn something and where you get the credit is breaking down.
Even if there's no cheap and easy back-door into an Ivy like the University of Pennsylvania, a student may soon be able to take what she learns from the Penn-taught calculus class on Coursera and have another college award the credit.
Here is how it might work. In February the American Council on Education, the leading association of colleges, said it would recommend that colleges accept credit for some massive online courses.
Coursera's Penn calculus class is one of four college-level MOOCs -- all on Coursera -- with an ACE recommendation as of early April. To get credit, you first must pay Coursera a fee, currently $128, for verifying your identity and proctoring the exams. (This could be one way Coursera someday makes money.) This doesn't, however, guarantee a college will follow the ACE recommendation and award credit. It's up to you to persuade your school.
That may get easier soon, and the result could be more-flexible or lower cost degrees. In California, legislators are considering a bill that would push state colleges toward accepting ACE-recommended online courses for credit.
In an experiment, San Jose State is offering credit for three Udacity courses it created, for $150 each. And more colleges are allowing students to study on their own -- perhaps with a MOOC -- and then pass exams that have been preapproved for credit. The University of Wisconsin system is launching a degree-completion program that will allow people to test their way into a BA.
Most people who try a class don't finish it
The Duke genetics class's low pass rate isn't unusual. Katy Jordan, a Ph.D. student in education technology at Britain's Open University, says that in 27 massive online courses for which she's found completion data, some 93% of students drop out or fail.
Those numbers need some context: A free class will draw people who just want to try it out, and it's easy to walk away when you've never written a check. Even so, Jordan, who has finished eight MOOCs herself, says the classes also have some features that turn many students off.
With thousands of students to evaluate, grading can be buggy or just plain wrong. Humanities courses rely a lot on peer grading, which can be tedious to do -- and Jordan says some students report "quite rude" graders. In general, today's MOOCs seem to work best in the sciences and other quantitative fields.
Course providers say they're working to address such problems. But the track record of the earlier generation of online courses -- the for-credit classes offered for years by traditional schools -- suggests many students will struggle with them. Researchers at Columbia University have found that community college online students got lower grades and dropped out more often than those in regular classes.
"If we know community college students don't do as well in online education, does it really make sense to be funneling [more] students into online classes?" asks Shanna Smith Jaggars, one of the Columbia researchers.
Jaggars says younger and struggling students are the least suited to online classes; they need the structure and time-management discipline of a classroom.
Traditional colleges will mix in MOOCs
Even if you aren't interested in having your kids work toward a degree with online-only classes, what's happening with MOOCs could nonetheless change their education.
MIT computer science professor Agarwal, who is currently president of edX, says he now assigns his short MOOC lectures to his class in Cambridge, Mass. In building his edX course, he learned that most students' attention flags 15 minutes into a lecture anyway. Using online tools allowed him to create a "flipped" classroom -- lectures are the homework, while class time is for collaborative work.
The flipped model also means that star teachers are now virtually exportable to lower-cost or less exclusive schools. Two Massachusetts community colleges, for example, are blending one of MIT's free computer programming courses with their own.
The MOOC delivers lectures and sophisticated tutoring programs, but students also attend classroom meetings with instructors they know. "In two weeks we did what it would normally take a semester to do here," says Mass Bay Community College sophomore Julian Kuk.
Free courses might boost your career
Free massive classes may hold the most appeal for adults looking to reboot their careers or just stay intellectually sharp. Tozzi, the Coast Guard officer, already holds traditional academic degrees, so, like a lot of people in midcareer or later, he's not as worried about collecting credentials as he is about being able to hone specific skills.
He's completed three classes on computing and investing and says the content is strong and the price is right. "The courses offered the chance to explore without having to deploy resources beyond time," says Tozzi.
That may make MOOCs a real competitive threat to pricey professional education. David Seruyange, a software engineer in Sioux Falls, S.D., says he was considering a $32,000 master's when he decided to try MOOCs instead.
"For-profit education and existing online-only degrees, such as MBA programs, will be most at risk," says Karen Kedem, manager of the higher education team at Moody's Investor Service.
Certainly it's easy to see how a one-time liberal arts major who ended up in a numbers-driven business career might benefit from Carnegie Mellon's open courses on statistics, or Udacity's class on building an entrepreneurial startup.
Udacity and Coursera are trying to make MOOCs even more attractive to job seekers by getting into the recruiting business -- flagging top students who opt in to employers.
David Luebke, senior director of research for Nvidia, who is co-teaching an Udacity class on programming, says he is watching student performance as well as interaction on discussion boards. "I see students who not only know exactly what is going on, but are being super-helpful," he says. "That is exactly the kind of employee you want."
This might wreck college -- or save it
Massive courses open up higher ed to the price-slashing economics of the web. Building an online class isn't cheap: A good one can cost $100,000, college leaders say. Yet once a school has a class for 1,000 students, the cost of letting in the next 100,000 is small. It's the same effect that's put free news on your computer -- and is putting newspapers out of business.
George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok, who has launched a MOOC platform called Marginal Revolution University with colleague Tyler Cowen, warns that some less prestigious but still expensive colleges may not survive. "I can go to the local university and take a class from an adjunct, or I can go online and get something from one of the best teachers in the world," he says.
A bigger worry is that colleges that are desperate to hold down costs, especially state schools, may try to shunt students into cheap, low-quality online courses that will do more harm than good.
"A more expensive course might be a better value in the long run," says Jaggars, if it helps more people pass and go on to graduate. She adds that the students who most need lower-cost options often don't have reliable computers or broadband Internet access.
On the other side, the new technology could help universities hold down some teaching costs, keeping high-quality, brick-and-mortar college affordable for more people. (For example, a professor might leave lecturing to a MOOC to free up more time with students.) Or it could cut students' costs by letting them pare frills or finish a degree faster.
"In the medieval period, the university was a citadel, walled off and separate," says Jeremy Adelman, the Princeton professor who taught history's first history MOOC. "We are post-citadel. It is wires, not spires, that define a university now."