The academic community is evaluating the first set of large-scale experiments with massive open online courses (MOOCs). The experiments have ranged from a plethora of single offerings at individual institutions to classes from several well-publicized consortia, such as edX, founded by MIT and Harvard University; Coursera, started by two Stanford University professors; and OpenupEd, a project of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities. Udacity is another popular platform, which reaches nearly 200 countries. (See Physics Today, March 2013, page 26.) That mode of free or low-cost coursework has also been promoted by civic-minded philanthropists Michael Saylor, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

On first consideration MOOCs seem like a wonderful opportunity to take MIT’s first-year electrical engineering course or a Stanford course on political science at one’s leisure, at no cost except for an internet connection and a receiving device.

I had the pleasure in March 2014 of attending a strategy and management forum on the future of engineering education, sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and NSF. The second plenary session was devoted to the topic of MOOCs; the speakers shared findings from an evaluation of the first wave of MOOC experiments and discussed the potential impact on higher education. Among the topics considered was the number of MOOC enrollments compared with the number of completed courses. Registrants for well-known MOOCs, such as those offered by MIT and Harvard, sometimes exceeded 150 000 per course, but the number of students who completed the course requirements was typically less than 5%. On one hand, the low completion percentage could indicate that success is questionable. On the other hand, in terms of reaching individuals, 5% means about 7500 students. Via a typical face-to-face course, reaching that number could take decades.

Also interesting are the demographics of the course registrants. For a course in innovation and entrepreneurship recently organized and hosted by the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Engineering, 80% of the students already had college degrees, more than 70% were international, and more than 60% were women—a number of particular value to the engineering profession, in which women are underrepresented.

As an experiment in bringing world-class higher education content to any interested person in the wired world, the ventures appear successful and should be applauded. Important questions remain, however, pertaining to how MOOCs will mesh with traditional teaching methods on the hosting campus and who will pay for course development and execution, given that most of the registrants are off campus and not paying for services.

That question about the appropriate business model parallels the discourse concerning open access to scholarly publications. There are clear benefits to making the world’s knowledge available, either by courses or in scholarly publications, to anyone with an internet connection, but somebody needs to pay to produce the high-value content and host it online.

From the MOOC experiments, we see local benefits emerging for the content producers—benefits that may justify the host institution footing the bill for course production. Recent experiments with so-called flipped classrooms are showing the benefits of teachers spending more class time working with one-on-one exercises or lab projects and leaving the traditional lectures to self-paced online instruction. In such arrangements, the course material prepared for MOOCs is worthy of local investment because it becomes an integral part of, or an important supplement to, the host institution’s resources. The on-campus student gets the combined benefit of the instructor’s extensive effort in developing a high-quality online product and personalized face-to-face time with the professor.

The online student does not get the key benefit of the on-campus experience. Creative additions that facilitate learning online with discussion groups and social media aren’t yet an adequate substitute in my book. Some 40 years later, I still treasure the days I spent in the classrooms, labs, hallways, and professors’ offices during my student days at MIT. Perhaps when full holographic remote interactions are developed, I will change my mind.

My alma mater was experimenting in online education well before the term MOOC became fashionable. MIT faculty started putting their courses online in 2002; materials from undergraduate and graduate courses alike were made available to the public for free or for a small fee. By October 2012 almost 2200 of the courses in the hefty MIT course catalog were online.

The April Meeting of the American Physical Society included a full session dedicated to impacts and experiences with MOOCs in physics. Some institutions use their MOOC offerings to augment their regular face-to-face introductory college courses. Speakers examined the MOOC user demographics and compared the rewards for the students who learn online versus those who learn in a traditional classroom.

The proliferation of MOOCs brings up the question of certification. If a bright and adventurous student in a land far, far away takes and passes all of the freely available courses for a particular MIT major, could that student be awarded an MIT degree without stepping on campus and without paying tuition, which was just over $43 000 for the 2013–14 school year? For now, the answer is no. But many MOOCs do offer certificates of completion.

Yet because MOOCs are still relatively new, questions about certification, accreditation, and other concerns continue to be weighed and evaluated. The digital offerings present both threats and opportunities to institutionalized education; they are also changing the way we receive education and interact with fellow students and instructors. I believe that this movement will drive progress and leave some tradition in its wake.