The changes to higher education are coming daily.
First comes the news that students taking free online courses from Harvard and MIT through EdX will be able to take a proctored exam at 450 testing centers in 110 countries.
The BIG issue of course, is if these courses will be accepted by others, mainly employers and other universities. Employers probably count the most. If employers are willing to hire candidates who have web badges or certificates instead of university degrees, the market value of a college degree will plummet.
I believe the market will test this by hiring a few folks and seeing what happens. The for-profit world is better (and has had much incentive0 to determine the real results of different experiments.
My guess is that free online course badges won’t prove to be any better or worse that a college degree when it comes to learning. We have MOUNTAINS of evidence that you get As in college and not have a clue (as Eric Mazur discovered of his Harvard physics students) and we have equally compelling research that tells that intrinsic motivation far outweighs any possible change in pedagogy. In other words, if a student wants to learn, teaching methods make little difference. For the student who wants to learn in a free MOOC, she will, for a student who wants to be a college surface or strategic learner (See, for example, Ken Bain’s new book, What the Best College Students Do, Harvard 2012), 4 years on a college campus will still result in nothing really being learned.
So the big choice for colleges is whether to accept transfer credit from MOOCs. If they do, then students will be able to drastically able to reduce costs (take a few free courses instead of summer school and still get a regular college diploma.
The first step has happened. Some Austrian and German universities already do, but Colorado State University-Global campus has become the first US university to accept a Udactiy course for credit.
This is only the Colorado State online campus, but if other colleges agree to take this credit the implications are serious.
If students can take this free Introduction to Computer Science and get transfer credit, why would they need to pay Stanford $6000 for the same product? Part of the answer will be that extra learning is offered on the Stanford campus, but Stanford had better figure out a way to demonstrate that extra learning (and justify is enormous additional cost) in a hurry.