“We’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it,” according to Northeastern President Joseph Aoun, who posted an editorial in the Boston Globe this weekend.

Massive open online courses, offered through initiatives like edX, Coursera, Treehouse and Udacity, are steering the disruptive ship, forcing the world to scrutinize traditional education—which might not be dead, but is severely flawed.

Aoun writes:

MOOCs are causing higher education to shift from a vertically integrated model to a horizontally integrated one. For centuries, higher education has been a vertical enterprise: Its core functions — knowledge creation, teaching, testing, and credentialing — all have been housed within colleges and universities. MOOCs disrupt this model by decoupling teaching and learning from the campus on a mass scale.

Tests no longer need to be administered on campus, especially as MOOCs continue to evolve. edX announced a partnership in September with Pearson VUE, giving learners the option of taking a proctored final exam for credit at “a modest fee.” And as credentialing becomes more available, employers will start taking online learning more seriously, closing the gap between what we knew and what we now know.

The transition is slightly terrifying—not all professors are thrilled. What online education brings, however, are new and enhanced opportunities. When speaking with local educators about the future of the MBA, several were optimistic. Boston College Professor John Gallaugher admitted, “New learning tools will allow us to outsource lecture time spent on rote work, so we can have more applied learning by doing.”

What MOOCs are forcing schools to do is re-evaluate and revamp their curriculum. As Babson’s Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Dennis Hanno has said, “It has pushed schools to come up with a value proposition.”

Aoun addresses this “value proposition,” as well, writing:

As more students wonder why they should pay for a campus-based college education when they can take online courses for low or no cost instead, colleges and universities will have to demonstrate the benefit they provide more powerfully than ever. Those that can differentiate themselves and prove their “value-add” will succeed — and those that can’t will fail.

Although this could “invigorate” higher education, Aoun fears it could divide the system, as well, creating a two-tiered system—“one tier consisting of a campus-based education for those who can afford it, and the other consisting of low- and no-cost MOOCs.”

Yet, isn’t that why MOOCs were invented? When former MIT President Charles Vest announced MIT OpenCourseWare in 2001, the goal was to open “a worldwide window” and bring opportunities to the masses—the masses who couldn’t afford, say, a $56,000-a-year Northeastern education, but still wanted the opportunity to learn.

Within one week of launching OCW’s pilot courses, the site received “more than 13 million page requests, averaging almost two million per day and 1,5000 emails expressing thanks and appreciation,” according to MIT News.

MOOCs don’t “constrain diversity,” as Aoun suggests, because higher education has already done that. When the average student loan debt is nearing $27,000, you already have a “luxury” brand. MOOCs aren’t the problem—they’re just what finally opened everyone’s eyes.

Sure, there are downsides to online education, but the benefits outweigh any negatives. The only negative that will come is when schools start shutting down because they were too slow to react.

Photo Courtesy of Blogging4Jobs/rainmakerrain