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How online learning is reinventing college

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This isn't necessarily a sign of failure. MOOCs have more value than the number of people who persevere through the last digital lesson. They offer students more efficient and cheaper ways to learn. The MOOCs track which people watch every video but never bother to take a quiz, helping administrators identify which students are ambitious, which are gifted, and which are merely curious. Even those who only watch a few lectures can glean information: In the Internet Age, after all, most people prefer to buy music by the song, not the album.

O'Brien, in fact, says the Coursera experience has spurred new thinking about campus learning. As professors sought her help, she noticed that no teachers made their MOOC the same length as the standard campus class. "Not a single course is 14 weeks," she says. That raised questions about how content should be broken up. What if a student needs four weeks of a course – but not the whole curriculum?

A more modular approach might help universities tailor courses to the varied backgrounds of their students. Brief online courses in specific areas could help them start on-campus classes at the same level of understanding. "We're going to have things that are not semester-long courses playing a critical role in the curriculum," predicts Dr. Koller of Coursera.

If you start thinking like this, college learning suddenly looks a lot less monolithic. New questions arise: What happens when students arrive having already taken MOOCs? Do they need to take a course with material they've already covered? O'Brien, who recently met with a student who had taken 10 online courses before coming to Duke, says there is now no way to put that on a transcript.

Yet, she says, it "ought to be taken into account. I'd be surprised if we don't have students in the next year saying, 'Well, I took the whole MIT electronics course, and I'd be happy to show you whatever you need to prove it.' "

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