I'm enjoying the MOOC I'm taking on global poverty and think that this kind of thing is not going to go away. But it has its limitations.
For one thing, watching lectures online is even worse than watching them in person (which can be great, but often isn't). I just read the transcripts, which is quicker, but reading the same points articulated more thoughtfully (and articulately) would be better still. In other words, I would rather read. Lectures generally, I think, are a waste of time, and probably only exist because a certain amount of class time is required by accreditation agencies and it's much cheaper to have someone lecture to hundreds of students than to
But big lecture courses typically involve smaller discussion groups, and, although the chance to discuss strikes me as having little value in itself, the chance to be part of a question and answer session with someone who knows the material much better than you is (or would be) very helpful. MOOCs don't do well here.
The graduate teaching assistants who run discussion sections also do most or all of the grading, which is much better than having students grade their own essays(!), which is how this MOOC does things. So I think the future of the kind of introductory level college course that involves lectures and multiple choice tests is likely to be extinction and replacement by online teaching supplemented by limited face-time with cheap graduate student teachers or adjuncts. This will mean that universities hire slightly fewer full-time lecturers. Anything above the introductory level will still require in person expertise for answering questions and grading essays, so the change will not be dramatic.
Except at institutions where courses never really get much above the introductory level anyway. I imagine we'll see a pretty obvious automatic ranking of colleges and universities, at least in the United States, with those at the bottom being relatively cheap and all, or almost all, online, and those at the top being much more expensive and all, or almost all, involving teaching by well qualified and physically present instructors. Poorer students will get a kind of one-size-fits-all education in easily testable knowledge and skills, while richer students will get individual attention and learn the kind of things that are best tested by the writing of essays, subjects that require greater literacy, intellectual sophistication, and creativity. Actually it's probably creativity that is hardest to grade by machine, so that is what will be reserved for the well off.
What is dying is general access to an education in the liberal arts. They were originally, I believe, the arts reserved for gentlemen at liberty, i.e. people who would today be called independently wealthy. And the trend is back in that direction. For a while we seem to have thought collectively that it would be good for as many people as possible to have this kind of education. We might even have thought that justice required it. Now we think it is too expensive.
The pessimist in me thinks this is terrible. That we are letting our worst instincts rule our lives (not just the love of money over everything else but also all the kinds of bigotry that are expressed in the laws, policies, and proposals we see every day). That our humanity is being squandered.
The optimist thinks about the access we have now to books, papers, documentaries, online lectures and courses, blogs, etc. online. And (less optimistically) about how crappy a lot of in-person education is anyway, and how uninterested in the liberal arts a lot of students appear to be.
We do not, by and large, want the ineffable benefits of education (we want only the ones we can spend). We don't believe that it is better to be Socrates satisfied than a fool satisfied. Or, if we do, we do not care if other people's children remain fools. I don't think we care much about other people's children at all. And we are happy with fakes. At least the real thing (genuine debate, good books) is available online. What is increasingly less available to everyone but the rich is any useful credential associated with what you might call real thinking. Socrates might be happy about that, as might others. Whether it's good for democracy is another matter.
(But perhaps it's too late for democracy anyway.)