According to Caltech's George Djorgovski, university education is about to undergo a seismic shift – one that may completely restructure it within as little as 20 years. The impetus for this change is the rise of the internet and in particular, the rapid proliferation of sophisticated distance education technologies.

Djorgovski has hands-on experience with those technologies thanks to his decision to teach a MOOC, or massive open online course, on the topic "Galaxies and Cosmologies." The course was advanced enough to involve differential equations. Despite this, over 28,000 students signed up to participate, with 2,000 continuing on to complete the entire course.

Technologies used to deliver the course included:

  • Facebook, which served as a portal to the class website.
  • Second Life, a virtual-reality world in which the professor maintained office hours and was able to meet with students.
  • Coursera, an online course management platform where students could interact with one another via discussion forums.

Djorgovski found Second Life to be particularly engaging for students, reporting that about a dozen of them took the time to set up avatars, or computerized versions of themselves, that could visit the professor in his virtual office. For his part, Djorgovski used the iconic children's literature character "Curious George" as his own avatar. The students, reported Djorgovski, found his office hours to be delightful.

The massive open online course, however, was different from Caltech's typical offerings in ways that have nothing to do with technology. "Galaxies and Cosmologies" was available free of charge to anyone able to connect to it using the internet. Students, however, were not able to earn any college credits for their participation.

The success of Djorgovski 's experiment with the MOOC model raises some important issues about the future of higher education. There appears to be great demand for extended education even when it does not come with official recognition in the form of credits. Indeed, for some international students, participation in a MOOC may be their only means of accessing the type of higher education that American students take for granted.

The rise of MOOCs, however, can be problematic for the universities offering them. When a high-quality educational experience is made available for free, paying students may begin to question the large tuition bills generated by traditional university attendance models. For now, it remains to be seen how universities will cope with the new pressures that the evolving online world is generating.