More than 1,000 years ago, young men in Europe left their homes, their towns, and their countries to study with scholars who were recognized for their expertise in various subjects. These loose associations of teachers and students became the first Western universities. Today, the Internet is fundamentally transforming that educational model.
These days, ambitious students compete fiercely for the limited number of spaces in America's best colleges. After admission, students at many universities still have difficulty getting into classes they want that are offered at the right time, taught by the right professor.
But imagine a world in which there are no admissions standards, no enrollment caps, and no closed classes. In this world, anyone can take classes at Michigan, Yale, Princeton, or any other university. Lectures by the most eminent scholars in every field are offered to everyone.
Imagine no longer. That world is here. And it's mostly free, at least for now.
Academic Earth, Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other startup companies are leading the push, although they differ in how they offer classes. Academic Earth offers mostly individual lectures on a wide variety of topics by professors from around the world.
Coursera, founded by two Stanford University professors; edX, a joint venture of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Udacity, created by Google vice president and Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, offer full courses with video lectures, quizzes, activities, and online forums.
Their lectures and classes tilt toward science and technology, but social science and humanities offerings are growing. Some of the best college teachers in the world have offered classes. And tens of thousands of students sign up for the classes or download lectures.
There are plenty of kinks to work out. Students have no contact with professors. Evaluation of student work is done peer-to-peer. Most students don't finish the online courses.
The current model doesn't seem to provide opportunities for students to conduct research and write in depth. Most courses are not offered for credit and don't lead to a degree. While universities and the online companies incur costs, the courses don't generate revenue.
That may be changing. The New York Times reports that Coursera classes offered by the University of Washington will award credits to students who pay a fee, do extra assignments, and work with an instructor.
Once credits, degrees, and fees are introduced, cheating is sure to follow. The Times said that Udacity will charge students $80 to take exams at testing centers around the globe.
The best teachers are more than scholars. They want to share what they know, to help other people see what they see. Open, online courses offer the prospect of virtual classrooms of tens of thousands of students. Scott Page, a University of Michigan professor, told the Times that his course on model thinking was downloaded by 40,000 students, the equivalent of "200 years of students in my class."
The ivy-covered halls of the world's great universities are not in imminent danger of being abandoned. Perhaps they will always be needed.
But Internet ventures such as Coursera suggest a different future, in which students from anywhere in the world choose not schools, but scholars -- much like their peers did a millennium ago -- without having to leave their homes. That would be an unprecedented expansion of educational opportunity.