If people in higher education are wondering whether they should be worried about the explosion of free online courses, take some advice from a newspaper guy:

Yes. Be very worried. Stay up at night. Walk around the house mumbling to yourself. Because if what happened to us happens to you, it’s a big deal.

What’s happening to the universities are MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, in which educators, including some at elite universities, offer their classes to the public for free. This phenomenon has the power to do to universities what free online ad sites like Craigslist did to newspaper classified sections, which was to make revenue disappear and change the way everyone has to think about his job.

These free courses raise fundamental questions about the true value of a college education (and what parts of that education are the most valuable). They also are emerging as a practical alternative for people who would like the opportunities that come with a higher learning but don’t want to saddle themselves with debt to get it.

MOOCS are not offered for credit, and as with one Stanford University course that had 200,000 people sign up, you can’t expect much individual attention from the professor. But even though you may not get credit at Stanford, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never get it somewhere.

Students at the University of Southern Maine have received transfer credit for MOOCs after they’ve shown a professor that they have mastered the material. Institutions now exist that let people who cobble together credits from free online classes and life experience walk away like the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” proudly carrying a diploma.

The real value of a college education is a key question of our time, when students and their families are encouraged to take on massive debt in the hopes of earning a degree. We are constantly told that people with degrees earn more than people without. Meanwhile, college debt topped $1 trillion last year, more than credit cards or mortgages. The average debt load is $27,000 per student, and parental borrowing is also climbing, averaging $35,000 last year.

The cost keeps people from going to college and forces many to drop out.

Maine is sometime referred to as a bargain for New England because tuition at the public universities is the lowest, and the University of Maine System trustees froze tuition this year to keep college affordable. But it’s still too much for many Mainers.

According to University Chancellor James Page (quoted in The Free Press, the USM student newspaper) Maine ranks 44th when you compare public university tuition to the state’s household median income, making it one of the least affordable states in the country to get a college education.

The arrival of MOOCs raises some really complicated questions about what students are paying for.

Stanford charges its regular customers about a quarter million dollars for a four-year degree, but it gives its classes away for nothing online.

That suggests that the real value of going to college, at least in the minds of the people at Stanford (and I think they are smarter than us), is not the content of the courses but the social interaction between teachers and students that comes from four years of living in Palo Alto, Calif.

That would be true of any real-world institution; the question is whether that social interaction is worth years of paying off student loans.

USM Provost Michael Stevenson says those kind of questions make this the most interesting period to be working in higher education. (That sounds like the brave thing newspaper executives have been saying for the last 20 years.)

Yes, the university is aware of MOOCs, and yes, he is concerned about what they could do to revenue, particularly among the non-matriculating students who take a class for fun.

But he is more concerned about what they say about the role universities will play in the smartphone era, when the institutions of higher learning no longer have a monopoly on information.

Stevenson can see a future where a university class could use a MOOC the way a teacher might assign a texbook but still assemble a group of students who would work together. Less than 10 percent of people who start MOOCs complete the course work on their own, so the support of a class could help.

“What value do we contribute if students have access to all the combined knowledge of human kind in their pockets?” he asked.

Answering that challenge will be the assignment for all colleges and universities, and it’s due soon.

Take it from us at the newspaper — don’t delay. This Internet thing is not going to blow over.


Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be can contacted at 791-6481 or [email protected]