This post is part of Hire Education, an ongoing series in which ReadWrite examines technological innovation in education and how it's reshaping universities that are preparing students for a transformed workforce.

Why pay thousands of dollars to sit in a stuffy university lecture hall as a professor drones away in front of bored students when you could instead take some of the world's greatest courses online? For free?

A handful of startups and university-backed nonprofits are starting to deliver on that proposition—one that could upend higher education, not to mention the plans of millions of students who are aiming to position themselves for employment in today's digital economy. Of course, the trend is still in its infancy, with big challenges ahead where student retention, university cooperation and business models are concerned.

But proponents of the online-education revolution aren't shy about their ambitions. Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford professor who co-founded the startup Udacity two years ago, reportedly believes that in 50 years, there will only be 10 institutions in the world providing higher education—with Udacity, of course, potentially one of them.

Off To A Fast Start—Sort Of

This online movement is centered around "massive open online courses," which go by the ungainly acronym MOOCs. These are typically college-style lectures reconfigured for the online student, complete with lecture video (of varying production value), assignments and interactive discussions. The aim is to provide instruction similar to what students can get in a traditional college atmosphere, only more cheaply and conveniently.

Websites like Udacity, Coursera and the non-profit edX (founded in mid-2012 by Harvard and MIT) offer an array of programs taught by established professors at big-name universities. Students register with an email address and can begin taking classes on a rolling basis. There is no application process, and the thousands of students taking one class can get there in a few clicks.

MOOCs are clearly starting to catch on. Traditional colleges and universities enrolled almost 20 million people in the 2011-2012 school year. Meanwhile, some of the new online programs—many of them less than two years old—already claim millions of students. Coursera, a startup founded in 2012 by yet another pair of Stanford professors, boasts of over four million people enrolled in its online courses.

Many Begin The Journey, But Few Complete It

Completion rates at MOOCs, though, are a different story.

Michael Littman, a Brown University computer-science professor, taught a Udacity course on algorithms that enrolled 16,000 students while he was actively teaching it over the summer. Only one percent of online participants, however, completed the course in real time, meaning they kept up with Littman’s teaching schedule, interacted with him online and finished when he wrapped up the course.

The numbers might seem low, but Littman proclaimed himself pleased with the turnout. “Even though it was a small percentage of students that completed the course, the total completion was still more than any students I’ve taught,“ he told me in a phone interview.

MOOC proponents argue that such numbers are beside the point, since online courses allow students to work through class material at their own pace. Instructors, however, have no way of knowing if students completed the course after they finished teaching, or if they dropped out altogether.

Stuart Preston, 44-year-old sales engineer for voice over IP products in Phoenix, Arizona, is one of those students. He's currently enrolled in a Coursera computer-networking course taught by professors from the University of Washington. It’s his first MOOC, and he's finding it hard to keep pace with the professors.

“The class is on week seven, but I’m only on week three,” he said in an interview. “It’s easy to blow [off] a class with no direct personal accountability.” 

The Cost Equation

The effect of MOOCs on traditional colleges and universities remains hard to measure. Many top-tier universities have embraced online courses as a way to democratize quality education by making their lectures and coursework more broadly available, often to other less well known colleges. Not surprisingly, such efforts also tend to bolster their institutional prestige and to enhance the profile of star faculty members who create online courses, a fact that sometimes rankles at institutions lower on the higher-ed food chain.

At San Jose State University, for instance, the philosophy department recently refused to use a social-justice MOOC created by Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel, complaining in an open letter than the move was "financially driven" and would lead to a "compromise of quality." As the authors explained:

[W]e fear that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant.

In April, Amherst College in western Massachusetts turned down an invitation to join edX in April after a faculty vote. Duke University's undergraduate faculty likewise recently rejected an administration plan to develop online courses for college credit.

Some state universities, however, are embracing MOOCs as a way of reaching more students. California State University, for instance, recently said it will offer 36 online courses to students enrolled at any of its campuses, allowing far more students access to required courses. (This year, five of the system's campuses had more applicants for every major than it had slots available.) The University of California and University of Texas systems have implemented similar systems.

Even at two-year community colleges, typically a low-cost alternative to four-year institutions, tuition costs have risen 24 percent faster than inflation over the past five years. That makes MOOCs more economically attractive for many students.

“I suspect that we’re in a period of experimentation,” Littman, the computer-science professor at Brown, told me. “A lot of schools are seeing it as way for the intro classes to be taught. Those classes can be covered by MOOCs and then students can take upper levels with professors.” 

The Online Degree Cometh

In one of the bolder moves, Georgia Tech—together with AT&T and Udacity—plans to offer an online master's degree in computer science next year that it will teach exclusively through MOOCs. The cost for the program, which should run three years for most students, is expected to be just under $7,000; a traditional graduate degree would cost three to eight times that.

Students who complete the program will receive a fully accredited masters degree. It's a testbed in many respects, not least because it will weed out students who aren’t serious about completing their courses. One goal is to prove in an academic setting whether an entirely online education is not only possible, but also a respectable alternative to traditional classrooms. 

The program also aims to help address the lack of workers in science, technology and engineering fields. Applications are due in October.

The MOOC Counter-Revolution

And yet not all is well in MOOC-ville.

Earlier this month, Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier, one of the most prominent professors in the MOOC community, quit teaching his popular sociology course on Coursera. Duneier told Chronicle of Higher Education that his decision followed Coursera's request to license his course to other colleges.

"I've said no, because I think that it's an excuse for state legislatures to cut funding to state universities," Duneier told the Chronicle. "And I guess that I'm really uncomfortable being part of a movement that's going to get its revenue in that way."

Other academics are working on alternatives to MOOCs that aim to take advantage of online technologies without simply creating centrally created, one-size-fits-all courses. One group of feminist scholars, for instance, has created a distributed online collaborative course—known, of course, as a DOCC.

DOCCs aim to use online technology to enhance in-person teaching while also making the results available to online students. Instead of a single syllabus, or course of instruction, for all students, a DOCC is taught across classrooms at several college campuses simultaneously. Courses will vary depending on the institution, but each will use a common video presentation to set the theme for a given week; that video will also be available online. Online students get a dedicated discussion space for conversation, and professors teaching the DOCC will also hold office hours specifically for online participants.

The first course created under the DOCC parameters is Dialogues on Feminism and Technology, a learning experiment with dialogue and lectures built around feminist discussions of technology and innovation. Institutions including Brown, Rutgers, Yale and a variety of art schools will offer the course this fall.

"Schools, classrooms, and learners are very different," Alexandra Juhasz, a professor at Pitzer and co-facilitator of the program, told me. “This is why we chose this model.” 

Shrinking MOOCs Down To Size

Feminists aren't the only ones rethinking MOOCs. Last month, the California Senate shelved a bill that would have required state universities to offer more online courses for credit, following pushback from faculty unions and a series of amendments that shifted decision authority over online credits back to university faculty. A similar measure in Florida was also largely defanged following strenuous objection and compromise.

Some MOOC providers themselves appear to be rethinking their approach, in part because it's becoming clearer that many—maybe most—universities are not going to simply grant them the ability to offer courses for regular college credit. "Credits are the coin of the academic realm," Russell Poulin, deputy director of a Boulder, Colo., higher-education technology cooperative, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "And if that's where the coins are, these companies are going to drive there."

As businesses, MOOCs are still mostly living on the largesse of their investors while they work out how to actually generate revenue. That's not easy if your plan is to keep your offerings free.

Both Udacity and Coursera raise some revenue by recruiting students on behalf of large companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook. MOOCs charge significantly less than traditional headhunters and have access to large pools of talent that demonstrate specific knowledge around topics these companies are looking for.

A few MOOCs are licensing courses to educational institutions that want to supplement classes with video lectures. That's a bit of a step back from the early, grandiose vision of sweeping away the existing educational system with free, best-of-breed courses on all subjects.

But some MOOC pioneers are sounding a bit like folks who've had a recent encounter with gravity. "A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10 percent, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," Udacity's Sebastian Thrun recently told the Chronicle. Udacity, of course, sees a real business in offering technology and support services for online courses offered by universities. 

Photo via Collegedegrees360