Higher-education costs have skyrocketed 450 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard lots of chatter about new online models for higher education. Some critics are outraged by the thought of removing the classroom experience from the equation. Others cite cheating and accountability as major obstacles. Still others, no doubt, recognize the warning sign in the form of a pink slip.

Techy optimists see online education as the next great Internet democratization. Anyone willing to learn, regardless of how much is in their checkbook, can gain access to the greatest institutions of higher education in the world. 

From the East Coast bastion of ivy comes the MIT and Harvard salvo. The institutions announced a partnership called edX to offer free online courses from both schools. According to the New York Times, those who complete the courses will get a certificate and a grade, but no course credit. By teaching large numbers of students through a single course, edX hopes to gain insights into the teaching process as well as provide academic opportunities for all types of students.

In the best amalgam situation, Cousera, founded by two Stanford professors, already offers free online courses compiled from some of the best universities: Michigan State, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford.  Interestingly, Cousera teaches the arts, including history and poetry, as well as smogasboard of computer courses. The courses do away with the traditional lecture; the instructor and assistants play the role of advisors, identifying common problems, offering clarification, and stimulating conversation. Peers and experts perform grading and other course interaction. HackedEducation provides a deeper look into Coursera here.

Udacity was born when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and two of his colleagues taught a free online AI course to about 160,000 students. Graded by machine, and focused on the computer sciences, Udacity offerings are all no-cost. An ABC interview says that ultimately the company plans to use student data for recruitment purposes, hence monetizing their efforts. Unlike the others, Udacity is not affiliated with any university, as Thrun and his colleagues left Stanford to start the company.

Together, this trio represents what has come to be known as MOOC: Massively Open Online Courses. Can you learn just as well in a crowd of 100,000 as you can in a small seminar? I suspect that individual learning styles will ultimately create everything from blended models to premium services. Meanwhile, reading through the forums and posts on Udacity and Coursera, it’s hard not to be encouraged by how grateful these far flung students are to be in the midst of this education revolution.

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