A teenage girl in El Salvador, a self-proclaimed “nonacademic” freight train driver in England and a juvenile corrections instructor in Idaho have at least one thing in common: they all enrolled in Duke Professor Mohamed Noor’s “Genetics and Evolution” class last Fall.

How? The answer lies in a web-enabled trend that is bridging cultural, economic and educational divides while also prompting questions about the trajectory of higher education.

Though Noor teaches his gateway biology course here on campus, he also broadcasts a version of the class to the online world, allowing him to simultaneously reach thousands of students, workers, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers—the list goes on. The platform is Coursera, an educational technology company that has partnered with many top universities to give professors the opportunity to teach to a (large) global audience—for free. The courses, which consistently attract thousands of participants of all ages and educational backgrounds, range from highly technical (such as Vanderbilt’s “Pattern-Oriented Software Architectures for Concurrent and Networked Software” course) to the ultra-liberal (such as the University of Virginia’s class titled “Know Thyself”). Though the courses aren’t completed for college credit, some do provide participants with a certificate of completion.

Just as Coursera is only one of many start-ups currently attempting to transform the future of education, Duke is only one of the many universities pursuing multiple strategies to advance its online education platforms—and to hedge the competition. Duke is pursuing a variety of online efforts, having also partnered with Semester Online (presented by 2U) which will offer for-credit courses for Duke students. Though both prongs of Duke’s online future are interesting, perhaps most intriguing are the Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs)—the classes like Noor’s—which are replete in both ironies and possibilities. A “come one, come all,” free program provided by some of the most exclusive and priciest institutions, MOOCs present the opportunity to both transform and undermine higher education as we know it.

Knowledge in Service to Society

Noor’s students are a testament to what the MOOC platform may mean for the future of global education. For Aria, the juvenile corrections instructor, it gave her students a glimpse of the world outside confinement. For the teenager in El Salvador, it provided a glimpse into evolution—a field rarely taught in her Catholic high school. For Richard, the train driver in England, it provided something to watch on his free shifts and a way for him to pursue his interest in science.

“I am in the process of convincing my principal and everyone else that this is a great program; we’ve got to get it on board,” Aria testified in a Google Hangout that Noor led with select participants in November to discuss the merits of his recent course.

“To get something like this without payment is fantastic,” Richard added. But the praise that this movement has received doesn’t stop at anecdotes from across the planet. Columnist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thomas Friedman robustly stated that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty…. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” The initiatives have won both the praise—and capital—of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has called the trend a “disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable” that “carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs.”

Yet it doesn’t take an education expert to question where this trend is going. If online education is the future, how will brick-and-mortar colleges continue to justify their rising price tags? Is this trend the beginning of the end of higher education? How will universities make up for the costs—and they may be more than you think—that these courses are consuming? One of Noor’s students, a Filipino currently studying medicine in Italy, may have brought up one of the most essential questions regarding the academic nature of these courses when he posed a questions in the Google Hangout:

“What would a certificate certify?”

The Silver Bullet?

Perhaps the event that crystallized the important implications these courses may have took place this summer, when UVA President Teresa Sullivan was forced to step down, citing “philosophical differences” with the institution’s Board of Visitors. A series of email chains make it appear as though Sullivan’s alleged hesitation to jump on the MOOC bandwagon partially led to her ousting.

One of those emails, sent from UVA rector Helen Dragas to vice rector Mark Kington, included a link to a Wall Street Journal article about the trend, which had the not-so-subtle subtitle: “the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.” In the subject line Dragas wrote, “Why we can’t afford to wait”—a thought that has likely been on the minds of many university officials. Slightly more than one week after Dragas hit send, the board demanded Sullivan’s resignation. Following several protests from students, faculty and administrators in the wake of her resignation, the Board of Visitors reinstated Sullivan June 26.

Facing increasingly tighter budgets, public institutions are looking for innovative ways to teach more students at a lower cost per head—making the online platform look ever more attractive. But Duke Provost Peter Lange was clear to tell somewhat of a different story—that this trend will not be the quick-fix that many institutions are hoping that it will be.

“What they’ve been treating these as is, ‘OK, we can teach a lot more students at a relatively modest cost, and in growing margins per new student,’” Lange posited. “That’s what they hope. Now, are they going to be able to do that and lower the cost of education, or just keep it stable?”

Some institutions may be able to repurpose the content freely available online and maintain their faculty to create a better educational experience, Lange noted. But he added that this will only be feasible at low-tier institutions, including community colleges.

“We would never do that at Duke, but they would do that and they might enormously benefit from it—and their students may enormously benefit,” Lange said, adding that even mid-tier research institutions likely wouldn’t be able to get away with repurposing MOOC content to reduce internal costs.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Lange asserted.

Amanda Ripley, an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation, suggests the same sentiment in her recent Time Magazine article, titled “College is Dead. Long Live College!” Ripley posits that institutions on both ends of the “brick-and-mortar” institution spectrum have something to offer their students; face-to-face professor interaction is key for both fostering discussion among the best and brightest and ensuring that those less academically inclined can keep up with challenging topics.

“What is going to happen tomorrow?” Ripley asks in her article. “It seems likely that very selective—and very unselective—colleges will continue to thrive. The colleges in the middle, though—especially the for-profit ones that are expensive but not particularly prestigious—will need to work harder to justify their costs.”

Though universities like Duke aren’t necessarily concerned that the MOOC trend will mean the end of brick-and-mortar colleges, Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, acknowledged that the trend will force universities to re-examine exactly what they are providing for their students.

“The real divider is not going to be whether online education directly challenges some schools, but it’s going to have to do with the cost-benefit analysis of education, because liberal education is by its very nature costly because it is so high-touch. If the outcome of that is the kind of education that deeply enriches people’s skills beyond just knowing a bunch of stuff and…that it translates into really becoming leaders—getting good jobs—then it will all work out.”

Rethinking Higher Education

“Why should Duke want to have its professors put their courses online?” Nowicki asked, rhetorically. “One, it’s good for the world; two, it’s great publicity to get the Duke name out there; and since this is something that’s coming, we need to jump into this and explore it.”

Yes, this trend may have important long-term financial consequences, but what appears to be more important for many Duke professors is the first of Nowicki’s points. Not only do the courses consistently reach thousands of individuals located across the world, the information gleaned from those experiments may mean improvement for those classes still taught here in Durham.

“MOOCs are a different model for learning, because if you actually have a large group of people who can collaborate and create subgroups—as the web allows—really interesting things can happen,” said French professor David Bell, who also chairs the University’s Arts and Sciences Council online course subcommittee. “For me, it’s the experimental learning environment that really, really interests me.”

Experimenting also means using the web to explore what works—and what doesn’t.

“We have never had that kind of data about learning trends before, and I think that’s really, really the crux of it,” Bell said. “We’re going to do a better job at presenting things in the learning environment than we did before.”

More participants can mean more problems, however. Some academics emphasize that cheating is virtually impossible to measure—posing issues for the courses that are given for-credit. Additionally, though thousands of students often sign up for popular courses, only a select few will go on to complete all tasks necessary for credit. In Noor’s first Coursera course, taught this past Fall, he said that only about 2,000 participants completed the requirements of the course, which initially had about 33,000 enrollees.

But this low retention rate doesn’t faze Noor.

“I’m sure that’s true if you watch how regularly people watch TV shows,” he noted, emphasizing that many of the participants are also merely auditing the course. “What happens right now is there is a bit of an over-enthusiasm for a lot of these things so a lot of the students are reporting—and I’ve seen this in discussion forums—that they’re enrolling for a ton of these classes. And then basically as they’re going through…they’re like, ‘OK, I don’t have time to actually be enrolled in 10 different classes.’”

After all, there is a distinction between interest and education, and although most participants may not be officially completing the course, that doesn’t meant that they’re not watching the lectures and engaging with the content.

Noor also points out that the model isn’t just helping those enrolled online. Instead, the video clips are being integrated into the course Noor teaches on campus in somewhat of a hybrid format known as the “flipped classroom.” Professors are quick to mention the benefits of this emerging model when discussing the online education movement, perhaps because the two are intricately linked.

In this model, instruction is entirely delivered online—mostly through video lectures that students watch, sometimes in place of completing reading—thereby reserving classroom time for collaborative work and application exercises. But is this just an educational gimmick? After all, the “flipped classroom” model carries with it hefty ethical questions. Why should students shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to watch videos already freely posted online? Are professors spending more time focusing on tailoring their courses to their outside audiences instead of focusing on the audience sitting in front of them?

Noor, who currently integrates the Coursera videos he created into his course on campus, is defensive of the “flipped classroom” model. Students in the brick-and-mortar section of his course receive lab, teacher feedback and the requirement to participate in collaborative in-class exercises, making the experience entirely different from that of his online pupils.

And data from his class’ first midterms back him up. The grades were not only “dramatically higher” than they have been in previous semesters, but they were actually the highest midterm grades he has seen in his career.

“The level of questions I get from students has, on average, gone higher—people are asking much deeper questions as opposed to ‘What did you just say?’ or things like that,” he added. “They are much more in-depth, understanding, ‘Where did this come from?’ questions and that’s very rewarding for me.”

These rewards did not come at a small cost to Noor, however. Noor estimated that he invested about 20-25 hours per week for a month and half leading up to the course, and spent about 10-15 hours per week throughout the duration of the course. In fact, the hefty time associated with instructing these courses may prove to be an obstacle as this movement expands.

But the “flipped classroom” model may have the long-term impact of reshaping veverything we know about how professors lead courses. Why not break up traditional lectures into shorter segments and force students to complete periodic activities, which some studies say do a better job engaging students? Why are lectures even traditionally 50 or 75 minutes long in the first place?

Moreover, the online education trend is forcing institutions to rethink what value they provide to the outside world. In Nowicki’s opinion, Duke will be safe in this reshaping of universities—Duke graduates are consistently successful, and the institution’s financial aid initiatives mean that the rising cost of tuition—it just climbed four more percentage points in 2013—won’t mean that students will be substituting their Duke degree with a slew of Coursera certificates. But Nowicki acknowledged that the future of higher education may be shifting, especially since it’s “really damn expensive”—and doesn’t appear to be getting cheaper anytime soon.

“In a sense, we are being driven by outside forces to prove our worth,” Nowicki commented. “Is it really worth that much money to go to Duke? Prove it. Traditionally, the proof of learning was how well students did on tests—well, how good is that? So we, the industry, are actually rethinking assessment.”

Grappling with the Future

Though still young—and maybe because of its youth—the MOOC trend is setting many education experts ablaze regarding what this trend may mean for education in coming years. Will it “help strip away all the distractions of higher education—the brand, the price and the facilities—and remind us all that education is about learning” as Ripley asked?

Or will it do the reverse, making branding more important—on a global level—and increasing the importance of those qualities of university campuses that exist outside of the classroom? (Nowicki even listed watching the Duke-Carolina game in Cameron as one of the hallmarks of attending a brick-and-mortar institution.) Professors seem to agree that expectations that the MOOCs will entirely replace established institutions are far-fetched, but depicting the exact effect of this recent trend seems to be challenging across-the-board.

One of the more prominent question marks is what the trend means for the bottom line of participating universities. As a for-profit institution, Coursera offers a “Signature Track” that allows students to pay a fee—ranging from $30 to $100—to earn a “verified certificate” for course completion, which may be more attractive to employers and educational institutions. Though these certificates will still not count toward a degree, Coursera also recently received approval from the American Council on five of its courses, including Noor’s “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution,” to count for credit, signaling that the profitability question is quickly evolving.

And given that these education start-ups’ costs are notable, that profitability question may be increasingly important in coming years. At Duke, the start-up costs—video recording equipment and staff, teaching assistants and support staff and the opportunity-cost of the professors themselves (who Lange noted “are paid a small amount” from the University for leading the courses)—likely pale to the costs of other University initiatives, but they are still important to weigh in times of rising tuition and spending cuts.

Though Lange noted that the University can legally withdraw itself from contracts with online platforms should they be sold to “an organization that you did not want to be associated with,” the risks that these establishments may bear are worth noting, especially given how quickly the organizations are evolving. Just last month, Coursera essentially doubled its number of partner universities, which inherently means that what started out as an initiative led by the ultra-elite—including Stanford and Princeton—is expanding to less-elite, though still prominent, institutions. Soon after, Coursera announced that a Georgia Tech course ironically titled “Fundamentals of Online Learning” would be suspended after complaints about technical glitches—signaling that institutional quality control over the courses will be increasingly necessary as the organization grows.

Though the trajectory of these open online platforms seems positive—at least given how much hype they have generated among university administrators—Noor was quick to note that the growth of these initiatives may not be constant in years to come.

“Part of it is going to become a market—there’s going to be demand,” Noor said about the potential expansion of courses. “It’s a little funny to think about it in the context of, ‘So, how many genetics classes do we need to have?’ I’m not sure we’re going to need to have a lot more. I mean, we need more than there are now, but at a certain level it’s almost going to be this steady-state as long as people are maintaining and updating them regularly.”

Editors' Note: This article has been updated to reflect that UVA President Teresa Sullivan was reinstated by the Board of Visitors following several campus protests.