People are beginning to pay attention to an apparent shift from traditional forms of higher education, as offered by the modern research university, towards online dissemination of intellectual materials. The most progressive among us seem to think that the university campus, and the high rates of tuition that come along with it, are on the way out. The idea middle class teenagers would leave home, get an education, and start a new career, new life, and possibly a new family, may not last long in our cultural consciousness.
Most attempts to make sense of whether the modern research university will decline in the face of the proliferation of online opportunities rest on what I believe are faulty assumptions. The university is thought merely to offer a product for consumers. (See the Economist or Slate.) People want information in order to advance themselves professionally, to develop a new set of skills, or purely to satisfy curiosity. The internet makes that information readily available to anyone who wants to pay a price, one that is much smaller than traditional tuition fees. But, in fact, the modern research institution has never been exclusively an institutional context for the generation and dissemination of knowledge. It also serves the function of accrediting students for entrance into a wide range of professions. It establishes a baseline against which non-academic businesses can judge the suitability of a job candidate. If you don't have a degree, the mantra goes, don't bother apply for the job.
The internet has long been lauded for making possible the democratization of knowledge. The possibility of learning anything, doing anything, and making anything of yourself is held out for dreamers to take hold. But a true democratization of knowledge and human potential is not possible. Even Wikipedia is not without a system of quality control. There will always exist communally-sanctioned processes whereby individuals are vetted, accredited, and steered towards a limited number of vocational options. The modern research university has established itself to fit just that role.
If online course offerings are ever going to meaningfully challenge the modern university, a number things will need to happen. The most obvious is that an online university will have to show that it can maintain the academic standards of a traditional university, if the forum is to be credible. It will also have to demonstrate that it can maintain the interests of students for periods of time long enough to complete a degree. Traditional university settings were able to encourage this through immersion. Someone who enrolled in an online institution would do so presumably because they had other time commitments. Certainly their is a market for this type of program, but it can hardly be the standard model. Perhaps the immersive experience can be achieved through Second Life or similar form of virtual interaction.
Let us not jump to any hasty conclusions about the demise of traditional forms of university education. Thus far, websites like Coursera and Udacity can only augment and enhance traditional forms of education.