Imagine a future where all high school students could go on to study whatever subject they want, where a university isn’t forced to limit the number of applicants it can accept or base its enrollment policy on grades or finances, but only on the wishes of students.

It’s the dream of an education revolution that is stirring in California, where a lack of space in lecture halls has meant that only 16% of university students manage to graduate in four years. The California Senate proposed legislation in March, though momentarily on hold, that would allow state universities to validate free courses that students take from home.

Get used to this acronym: MOOC, for massive online open courses.

MOOC consist of videotaped university classes posted on the Internet, typically providing free access for students. Often, the courses come with additional materials,, exercises and online forums in which the students can discuss the topic in an innovative and interactive way.

Since 2011, the number of such courses has soared. Anybody can now sign up for a quantum mechanics course at the University of California at Berkeley, or a project management class at the Central School of Lille, in France, while catching up on philosophy lessons on French state channel website education.francetv.fr.

Some courses become worldwide hits: One on artificial intelligence posted in 2011 by Stanford University had attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries in its first three months alone.

Such success is a dream opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors. Sebastian Thrun, a researcher at Stanford, an engineer for Google and one of the two authors of the course on artificial intelligence, has raised a total of $21.5 million in backing for Udacity, the startup he created in Silicon Valley in early 2012. A few weeks later, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, two other professors from Stanford, launched Coursera and have gathered some $65 million in investment.

Alain Mille, head of mission at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), explained that the current version of what was once called distance learning is “not yet organized, which allows pioneers to position themselves.”

The influx of venture capital has allowed for a notable boost in the quality of the content. While the first MOOC were filmed with mobile phones, the latest courses are recorded in high-definition.

Private v. public

But some worry about the rising production costs. “The access to MOOC might be free of charge, but they’re more and more expensive to make,” says Olivier Ertzcheid, lecturer in information science at the University of Nantes in western France. “It’s not only the wages of the professors. We also need to consider those of the audiovisual specialists and the cost of the material.”

To thwart competition from private companies, universities are joining forces — increasingly across national borders. “Berkeley will soon offer music classes on our platform, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) will provide French classes,” explains Howard Lurie, vice-president of edX, a MOOC platform created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard as a non-profit organization. Relying on open-source software, edX gathers together 28 universities from all over the world.

According to Gilles Dowek, researcher at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), European faculties are right on the heels of their U.S. counterparts. The Virchow-Villermé Center for Public Health, which works with the Sorbonne Paris University and the Charité-Universitätsmedizin from Berlin, will launch a MOOC in October, which will be hosted on a platform exploited and co-developed by INRIA, he says.

Digital cheating?

Nevertheless, several key problems must still be addressed: For example, how to make sure that the e-students have “attended” all lessons, that they are the ones taking the exams or how to teach practical exercises. To verify the identity of the students, some organizations rely on their typing pattern. But the would-be cheats can already find software on the Internet that imitates somebody’s typing pattern. This would allow a better student to take the exam instead of the applicant.

“For now, there aren’t any magic bullets,” concedes Pierre Dillenbourg, director of EPFL's pedagogical unit. “But this should change in the next year or so, thanks to the evolution in facial or vocal recognition technologies and online proctoring — the remote surveillance of candidates, by installing cameras in their homes, for instance.”

Room for progress

Bringing a larger audience to the MOOC is another challenge. One way of doing it would be to make them accessible in countries where the bandwidth is not always sufficient. For example, Christina Fragouli, associate professor in Information Technologies at EPFL, has developed an application called VideoBee that allows several users to each download a different part of a video and then assemble the bits together, therefore using less bandwidth.

There is also room for progress in the range of courses being offered. “We know very well how to make a MOOC with a professor in front of a camera, but can we teach music or surgery remotely?” wonders Gilles Dowek. “It’s more difficult, but not impossible.”

In the future, MOOC could also be used by companies to train workers. “One day, machine-tools will be connected to MOOC, and technicians will be able to learn directly from there,” predicts Chris Lawrence from the Mozilla Foundation, the editor of Firefox, which is looking into expanding access to education to the highest number of people.

Finally, the pedagogy will need organizing. “One of the main challenges is being able to handle the complexity of it: for example, supervising 50,000 students, dividing them into groups of four with each group receiving different tasks, marking their work, etc.,” Pierre Dillenbourg explains.

“The solutions will ultimately come directly from the tracks left by the students themselves,” says Lurie of edX. “Every video that is watched, every click of every mouse, every discussion: everything is recorded and analyzed.”

With this system, it is possible, for instance, to pick out the best performers in a course and ask them to become tutors to help slower students. These tutors also get special supervision, but this time by a real teacher.