The End of the University as We Know It” read the headlines when more massive open online learning platforms started surfacing. But Jonathan Haber didn’t buy it.

“We were getting to the peak of inflated expectations,” Haber said, referring to all the hype. “MOOCs will transform colleges as we know it, blah, blah, blah. I had just had a good experience in a MOOC, but it wasn’t that good.”

Haber, a writer and entrepreneur, had enrolled in Duke University’s 12-week course “How to Reason and Argue” on Coursera. The curriculum seemed to mirror the kind of education he would have received in the 1980s at his alma mater, Wesleyan University. Before he added his voice to the media frenzy and started singing the praises of open, online learning, however, Haber knew he needed to complete more than one course.

“Everyone else who was writing about the subject or creating policy, they had even less experience than I had,” Haber said, noting a majority of the teachers, legislators and entrepreneurs speaking to online learning had never even enrolled in an online course.

Not only were people giving credit to this unproven entity, they were claiming it could destroy education — a system that’s managed to thrive for centuries, despite the skyrocketing costs of tuition. Could online education replace the legacy learning model?

Haber made it his mission to find out.

He launched the Degree of Freedom in January 2013 with one goal: To discover if he could learn the equivalent of what he’d get from a four-year undergraduate education in just 12 months using free, online resources, and only online resources.

Haber chose philosophy as his major, and began blogging daily about his experience, eventually adding a weekly newsletter of MOOC reviews to the mix, as well as podcast interviews with leaders in the open online learning movement. Haber took eight courses roughly every three months, spending the first two “semesters” on general education requirements, such as science, math and history. By the end of the year, he was ticking off major-specific courses, taking 10 philosophy classes in total.

After one long, labor-intensive year, Haber could say he achieved his goal; he was fairly fluent in philosophy. More importantly, however, he discovered what massive open online courses really are.

“They’re not one thing, they’re many things,” Haber acknowledged. “For the younger, self-motivated, they might be a replacement for certain components of college. … For older learners, some of it’s recreational learning. In my case, I actually did want to study philosophy, but didn’t want to get my PhD. MOOCs empower that.”

When Harvard and MIT jointly launched edX in May 2012, the local learning institutions emphasized the platform would be complimentary. At the time, former MIT President Susan Hockfield said, “Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally.”

Several professors have started integrating online education into their classrooms. By leaving the lecturing to the Internet, educators can save classroom time for active discussion and peer-to-peer learning.

Yet, three-quarters of people who take MOOCs already have a degree, according to Haber, proving online learning has become less about younger students and more about those who want to continue their education. Or, are just curious.

MOOCs receive a lot of flack for their course completion rates. Those figures can be “misleading,” however. Anant Agarwal’s appearance on The Colbert Report is a prime example of why.

The edX CEO visited the late-night show in July. Overnight, following his debut, daily registrations in HarvardX MOOCs tripled from 406 to 1,356. As pointed out by Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Andrew Ho and Research Fellow Justin Reich in The Atlantic:

By tripling registration rates but only doubling certification rates, Stephen Colbert single-handedly lowered the completion rate for all open HarvardX courses. With a flood of curious browsers from Colbert Nation, hundreds of students explored our courses, and dozens of students ultimately completed them.

The dozens of others just skewed the data, and shouldn’t be defined as “dropouts.” After all, there’s more to online learning than course completion rates, which Haber can now attest to.

“In terms of my experience, a very self-motivated student can learn the equivalent [of a four-year degree] if they find the right MOOCs and take them seriously,” Haber said. “[MOOCs] did put universities on notice.”

But MOOCs still have a long way to come, particularly when talking financials. Explained Haber:

MOOCs are currently heavily subsidized by institutions such as Harvard and MIT or by investors whose willingness to invest without a clear path to sustainability or profitability is not boundless. While it’s always exciting during a period when the people who write the checks are urging you to grow and expand and think about monetizing later, there will come a time when MOOCs have to at least demonstrate the ability to be self-sustaining and there is currently no clear pathway for them to get there.

For now, however, MOOCs have proven to be powerful in underserved markets, where students don’t have the same kind of access to education like many do here in the U.S. edX recently partnered with Facebook to bring online education to the unconnected world. And, as other MOOCs continue to grow, “the most interesting thing that will happen,” according to Haber, “is their implementation in challenging environments like Third World educational systems with limited resources.”

Someday, anyone with an Internet connection could be walking away with the equivalent of a college degree. As Haber has proved, it can be done.

Image via Jonathan Haber