Last year, when Gov. Rick Perry challenged educators to develop a $10,000 college degree, it sounded like a gimmick. Then Texas A&M-San Antonio unveiled such a plan, built largely around dual-credit classes at a local community college.
But why stop at 10 grand? And why limit a low-priced education to lesser-known schools?
Some of the nation's most prestigious universities, including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, are now offering classes for free, available online to anyone with an Internet connection.
Other startups have jumped in, too, with lessons on everything from basic algebra to pharmacology to programming a robotic car. Renowned professors often teach the courses, and they can include homework, quizzes and grades.
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So far, students receive only certificates of completion, not transferable credit, official diplomas or formal degree plans. But the revolution in online education is getting started, and after the Internet reinvented retailing, music and media, it's higher ed's turn.
This month, Harvard and MIT announced a joint project called edX, which has $60 million in funding from the two schools and will offer classes in the fall.
Last month, venture capital firms pledged $16 million to Coursera, whose partners include Stanford, Penn, Princeton and the University of Michigan. Coursera lists more than 40 classes and some start in June, such as Penn's vaccines and Stanford's cryptography.
Other online entries include Udacity, Kahn Academy and Codeacademy, whose classes are also free.
While formal accreditation is still not there, the online courses offer a great value. They're ideal for developing and supplementing skills, exploring college majors and embracing lifelong learning.
"This is the biggest single change in education since the printing press," edX President Anant Agarwal said when the Harvard-MIT project was announced. "Our goal is to educate a billion people around the world."
The growth in high-speed Internet, cloud computing and machine learning makes this possible. While colleges have had online programs for more than a decade, some of the latest entries have drawn huge numbers at a minimal cost.
Last fall, a Stanford class on artificial intelligence attracted 160,000 people from almost 200 countries, and it was announced with a single e-mail. The professor, Sebastian Thrun, said administering his online course cost less than $1 per student, compared with $1,500 per student for his class on campus.
Here's the biggest surprise: After the program went online, more than 80 percent of his students stopped going to his live lecture. Thrun is no ordinary professor; he's also a Google Fellow, who led development of the self-driving car.
"And they prefer us on video," Thrun said in a speech to a digital conference. "That was a big shock to us."
He was so moved by the response and reach of online education that he gave up tenure at Stanford and started Udacity. He said there was no going back after getting e-mails from people like a single mom and an Afghan who went to extreme lengths to finish his class.
"These are not elite students from Stanford," Thrun said, reading from the e-mails. "These are working people, and I was able to touch their lives."
Research has shown that online teaching can be as effective as traditional lectures. And Thrun said students shared questions and answers in lively exchanges via Facebook groups and other social media.
Online education already has a major foothold in academia. At the University of Texas at Arlington, 9,300 full-time students took Internet-based programs last year; that's 27 percent of enrollment. Some 4,000 more had at least one online class, a UTA official said.
The school charges roughly the same price for online programs and tries to re-create the UTA experience for its distance learners. What's different about the new national ventures is that they're focused on people who aren't enrolled -- and most universities don't devote serious resources to nonpaying customers.
The startups plan to figure out an economic model later. That could include selling premium services to students, charging a small fee for a certificate of completion and getting employers to pay for training or job referrals. With an audience in the hundreds of thousands, they're confident about making it pay.
Most traditional colleges will have to adjust, because they'll be measured against the free online models. The supply of top-flight courses will explode and that should affect demand and pricing, said Tom Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.
While elite institutions will be able to stick with their historic approach, he predicts that 90 percent of four-year colleges will be transformed by online developments. Students and parents will push the transition, because they're desperate for excellent programs at a good price and with a lot less debt.
College tuition has doubled in the past decade and has grown at twice the rate of inflation for 30 years. Two-thirds of 2010 graduates had student loans, with an average debt of $25,250.
If online classes can slow the rise, that will be progress. And even those eager for a traditional on-campus experience will start asking: Which classes are better online, and which are worth face time with a professor?
Educators talk about "flipping the classroom," so students get the content outside -- by watching a video lecture, for instance -- and then use class time for discussions. At UT Austin, a pilot program has produced higher grades and attendance.
For students and parents, finding the best value in education will be more complicated, but the options and rewards will be greater. Lindsay has four children in traditional colleges and graduate school, and he has second thoughts about the costs.
"I'm not so sure the debt is justified," he said. "They could get more value for less money."
That's the calling card of technology, and it's about to upend one of the country's most traditional businesses. Consumers stand to benefit most.
Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Thursdays. 817-390-7821