Among the reasons the MOOC phenomenon is happening now are social and technological factors including the popularity of social networks such as Facebook and the high-quality online video pioneered by YouTube, Agarwal said.
Meanwhile, cloud computing makes it easier to cope with the need for rapid scaling, something edX encountered when a course it expected to draw a few hundred or a few thousand students wound up enrolling 10,000 "in the first few hours" and ultimately wound up serving about 155,000. Even though typically only a fraction of the students who sign up for a MOOC course wind up completing it, the website had be able to handle the peak load. Fortunately, edX was able to quickly provision additional capacity from Amazon Web Services, Agarwal said.
Clayton Christensen, who in recent years has been making predictions about the future of education based on the theory of disruptive innovation from his book The Innovator's Dilemma, recently warned that there will be "wholesale bankruptcies" of traditional universities that fail to adapt quickly enough. Pappano asked the MOOC leaders whether they agreed, and both said no.
"That would be a tragedy," Ng said, declaring his belief that there is still "something sacred" in the relationship between student and teacher, in person and on campus. "The real value of attending a top university isn't just the content" but also the interaction with faculty and other students, he said. Instead, MOOC content should be used to enhance the university experience by creating "more space for classroom interaction" when students can consume lecture content online, he said. "It preserves that classroom time, that precious three hours that the registrar gives us."
At the same time, Ng loves the idea of making elements of a university education available to working people who might otherwise be forced to "choose between education and groceries" or even to "a poor kid from Kenya" who would otherwise have no way of accessing courses from MIT or Stanford.
"I love Clay Christensen, but he's flat out wrong," Agarwal said. "Of course, there will be disruption. Who knows what the world will be like 10 years from now -- it will be different." Yet the MOOC lecture of today is likely to evolve into "the new textbook" that serves as the basis for reinventing how university education works, rather than replacing it. "This will improve the quality for universities, and I think students will come in larger numbers to universities," he said.
The real impact of MOOCs may be in pioneering new instructional techniques that will find their way back on campus, as well as expanding the limits of what's possible with online education. For example, although traditional science labs might be hard to replicate online, one biology instructor is using virtual gaming tools to let students construct gene sequences, Agarwal said. "I think we can actually be better in real life in many areas."
Another advantage of this model is that people who aren't university students yet can take MOOC classes to get ready. "Won't that be wonderful if high school students come in learning more?" Ng asked. The effect will probably wind up being similar to having taken advanced placement courses, where even if credits don't transfer a student might be able to "test out" of taking an introductory course and move on to taking more challenging ones, he said. Ng also sees great potential for working professionals to come up to speed by taking a series of MOOC courses and then enrolling in a more traditional program to finish a degree.
Both men talked about the need for continuous, life-long learning to replace the traditional notion of a college education as a one-time event. "To go to school for four years and then for the next 40 years coast on what you learned in college -- that doesn't make any sense in today's world," Ng said. "Each of us needs to get regular booster shots of knowledge in order to remain current."
Although MOOCs won't replace universities, they are "causing universities to rethink what's possible with education," Ng said.