"The whole monopoly on credentialing is slowly breaking," said Burck Smith, co-founder of Baltimore-based Straighterline, a small start-up with large ambitions.
The company offers online courses (its first ones were self-paced but with tutors available) in subjects like algebra and chemistry. Without accreditation, it can't offer credit itself. But about 40 colleges have agreed to award credit to students who finish Straighterline courses —"unbundling" some of their teaching to a specialized provider.
Students also can't use federal aid to pay for Straighterline courses. But because Straighterline doesn't have a campus, it doesn't charge for things like football teams, student unions and career counselors. It charges only for teaching: $99 a month, a price most can pay without federal aid. It plans to enroll about 15,000 this year.
Some colleges can justify their $50,000 price tag, Smith said. But for students who just want well-taught basic courses, without bells and whistles, why shouldn't the market offer just that?
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked recently whether he would push for more changes to open up the market. He said he wants to make room for more experiments and to see the data.
"College costs are crushing lots of Americans," Duncan said. "I think technology has a chance, an opportunity, to be very, very disruptive, very helpful there."
"I'm extraordinarily interested," he said. "I'm not sold."
There's no simple story here. We're headed to a blended world, a partnership between innovators and traditional universities. Each side needs the other.
Students already take Straighterline courses to shorten their time at a traditional college. More than 20,000 classrooms globally use Khan Academy material.
California state universities are offering blended models — MOOC learning materials with onsite help from faculty — and 10 state college systems announced similar plans. California's early experience suggests blended models can be effective, but simply replacing in-person classes with MOOCs is not. Technology alone can't yet achieve the broadest educational goals — especially for students who need more help.
Roughly 40 percent of Coursera's registered students come from developing countries, and close to half of edX's. Most, though, have already managed to get an undergraduate degree. Will other students have the Internet access to access MOOCs, let alone learn effectively from them?
"Disadvantaged populations need higher-touch services, not self-services," said Peter Stokes, an expert on education innovation at Northeastern University.
Abdoulaye Coulibaly, 26, is an English master's student at Felix Houphouet Boigny University in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. He does not believe online education can or should replace the classroom.
"We're going to be very lazy online," he said. "If you put my class online I'm going to take it and I'm not going to come to the university again. We need to come to class. They're the teachers and they have to teach us. If we don't understand, we need to ask questions. That's the only way for us to understand."
And yet, MOOCs have obvious allure in a place where the few universities burst at the seams — if they function at all. Post-election violence recently forced Felix Houphouet Boigny to close for 17 months. Squatters took over the campus, and its libraries still have no books. Just getting to school is an ordeal; Coulibaly must leave his home at 5 a.m. to snag a seat in 8 a.m. class, and he's been robbed a half-dozen times en route. The university has 60,000 students, but is often short classroom space.
To Coursera's Koller, the MOOCs' potential is if anything greater in places Ivory Coast.