College Is Dead. Long Live College!

Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?

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Computer-Generated Image by Richard Kolker for TIME

Three weeks later, I returned to Khatri’s class. He was about a week behind the Udacity pace, and his quizzes were easier. But not a single student had dropped his class. And when I asked a group of students if they would ever take this class online, they answered in unison: “No way.”

At this stage, most MOOCs work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way. Thrun and his MOOC competitors may be setting out to democratize education, but it isn’t going to happen tomorrow.

What is going to happen tomorrow? It seems likely that very selective — and very unselective — colleges will continue to thrive. At their best (and I was only allowed to witness their best, it’s worth noting), Georgetown and UDC serve a purpose in a way that cannot easily be replicated online. 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.

Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all the distractions of higher education — the brand, the price and the facilities — and remind all of us that education is about learning. In addition to putting downward pressure on student costs, it would be nice if MOOCs put upward pressure on teaching quality.

By mid-October, YouTube remained dark in Pakistan, and the power blinked out for about four hours a day at Niazi’s home in Lahore. But she had made it halfway through Computer Science 101 anyway, with help from her classmates.

Niazi loved MOOCs more than her own school, and she wished she could spend all day learning from Andy Brown. But when I asked her if she would get her degree from Udacity University, if such a thing were possible, she demurred. She had a dream, and it was made of bricks. “I would still want to go to Oxford or Stanford,” she said. “I would love to really meet my teachers in person and learn with the whole class and make friends—instead of being there in spirit.”

Ripley, a TIME contributing writer, is an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation, where she is writing a book about education around the world

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