Colleges may have priced themselves out of the market. But not to worry—entrepreneurs have come along with a new way to acquire an education: massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The New York Times recently reported on one such venture:   

As part of a seismic shift in online learning that is reshaping higher education, Coursera, a year-old company founded by two Stanford University computer scientists, will announce on Tuesday that a dozen major research universities are joining the venture.

In the fall, Coursera will offer 100 or more free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that are expected to draw millions of students and adult learners globally.

An article in Forbes magazine asks some important questions:

Could high-quality MOOCs eventually do to traditional colleges and universities what Craigslist has done to classified advertising in newspapers and what Wikipedia has done to encyclopedias? In other words, could Coursera and its ilk replace a $250,000 college degree and decimate the world of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities? Coursera doesn’t even have any plans to give degrees yet, or any revenue model.

But along with Coursera, there are several other big, prestigious players who have launched successful, high-quality online courses, including edX, a joint venture of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Udacity, founded by Sebastian Thrun of Stanford. What might all this mean 10 or 20 years from now?

Professors at places such as Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland are also working with Coursera to provide instruction. “Suddenly the world of elite higher education is opening up to the masses,” Forbes notes.

Although I belong to the cult of the Great Teacher (because I was fortunate enough to have had some) and value the personal interaction between professors and students, I love this: it is an innovation, coming seemingly out of nowhere, that could solve what seemed to be an insuperable problem: unaffordable college tuition.

The university system, which began to develop in medieval Europe, is one of mankind’s great creations. Universities grew indigenously, meeting the needs of scholars, but now they are simply out of reach for people who don't have rich parents or a desire to begin their post-graduate lives deeply in debt. Perhaps MOOCs are simply the next chapter in the history of higher education.