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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Online courses could be the end of college as we know it

Peter Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at

Peter Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania prepares to record a lecture on Greek Mythology in Philadelphia. (Nov. 15, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

Someone has to be the last one to buy into a bubble.

In the housing market, I'm pretty sure that was me. My wife and I bought our home in late 2006, even though we were certain the market couldn't go a penny higher.

For us, it was the right time to buy, and we count our blessings for having a roof over our heads. But what really hurts is that we're about to do it again; this time with the college bubble.

Our eldest is 16, but anyone sending children to college within the next few years faces the same dilemma. College costs are at an all-time high, yet there's not an informed soul in America who doesn't believe that the traditional college experience is about to become radically altered, and devalued, because of price pressures and Internet technology.

Just like with the housing bubble, something has to give. If the college structure remains as is, it's estimated that a 5-year-old today will have to pay more than $500,000 to get a four-year private education at a leading school. But the average American family is able to save a total of just under $14,000 for college, according to a 2009 survey by Gallup Organization and the education loan company Sallie Mae.

Leading universities are already charging upward of a quarter-million dollars for a bachelor's degree, meaning that the typical American family can come up with only about 5 percent of the cost. The rest has to come from loans and scholarships. Something's seriously wrong there.

Enter the MOOC. In Martin Scorsese's 1973 gangster classic "Mean Streets," "mook" was a made-up-sounding insult -- "You can't call me a mook!" -- that precipitated a Litte Italy bar fight. Today's MOOC is a real acronym, and it's going to cause a far bigger upheaval. "Massive open online courses" are poised to do to colleges campuses what word processors did to Smith Coronas 30 years ago: make them quaint relics of a bygone era.

A decade ago, people scoffed at the notion of online classes. Not any more. A lot of smart people at elite institutions are betting on them as the future of education, not just in America, but worldwide.

Sebastian Thrun, a former research professor at Stanford University, now reaches hundreds of thousands of students through an online school called Udacity that he created with the help of Google. Other top professors, including at Ivy League colleges, are teaching MOOC courses as well.

Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told a panel in Davos, Switzerland, this month that universities will no longer be able to charge what they do for courses in this digital world. Former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, on the same panel, predicted that MOOCs will be "profoundly transformative" in the coming years. It is "insane for calculus to be taught 10,000 times in 10,000 different classes. We are on the way to it being taught by fewer people better," Summers said.

Massive online classes taught by world-class professors at a minimal cost to students are in their infancy today. And there are plenty of questions: How to ensure against cheating? How is accreditation proffered? How much is lost in the educational experience from the lack of real human interaction?

But as one of Scorsese's characters might have put it, you can bet dollars to doughnuts that someone's going to figure these things out when college educations cost three- or four-hundred grand a pop.

In the meantime, millions of us are caught in the bubble, since not sending our kids to college isn't an option in today's economy. Perhaps our children are the lucky ones. They may be the last to enjoy a college education as it once was. Even if they end up mired in debt for the privilege.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.