Apparently 2012 is not only the return of Quezacotl and Mayan Apocalypse, but, according to the The New York Times, the Year of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course).

The paint is barely dry, yet edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing “faster than Facebook,” boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.

“This has caught all of us by surprise,” says David Stavens, who formed a company calledUdacity with Sebastian Thrun and Michael Sokolsky after more than 150,000 signed up for Dr. Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” last fall, starting the revolution that has higher education gasping. A year ago, he marvels, “we were three guys in Sebastian’s living room and now we have 40 employees full time.”

“I like to call this the year of disruption,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX, “and the year is not over yet.”

What does the MOOC mean for the future of the traditional university?  The $20 million question–or, perhaps more accurately, the $50K/year question–is whether digital technology will do to higher education anything like what it did to the music industry.  A decade ago, few would have thought that a computer company would replace the record store; but here we are.

What might a tipping point look like?  

It seems to me that two key conditions would have to be met:

1)  Credit:  currently, most MOOCs are free.  But given the alacrity with which universities are jumping on board, it’s likely that this will begin to change–indeed, it already has.  Moreover, the scale at which MOOCs operate would allow them to sidesteps the sticker shock of the traditional university while potentially netting comparable profits (you can charge $5/lecture when you have hundreds of thousands of students participating, plus the savings per head given the lack of a need for infrastructure/facilities).  The legitimizing of accreditation would be a gateway to:

2) Signal to Employers:  one of the pillars propping up the traditional model is the oft-cited statistic showing that, despite the exorbitant tuition costs and crushing student loan debt, a college education continues to be a sound investment because it is correlated with higher lifetime earnings.  This, in turn, means that a college degree still SIGNALS to employers that an individual is capable and competent, and a degree from an elite university is, of course, an even stronger signal.  Right now, MOOCs are in the Wild West phase.  But once the industry matures, and the leading companies producing sterling content and delivery emerge, and once the rewarding of credit for online courses becomes streamlined, normalized, and demonstrably merited, then a degree in X from online university Y will signal to employer Z that the candidate can deliver skills A, B, C, and add value D, E, and F.  When you factor in the oft-heard complaint among employers that college graduates are lacking in basic skills and competencies, they may well be more receptive to an online degree that can quantitatively demonstrate proficiency in the skills they desire; in other words, over time, the value of the degree from traditional university X may begin to dip when the degree from online university Y empirically guarantees proficiency in skills A, B, and C–which are all, presumably, the employer cares about.  Which hire would be the greater risk?  A 22 year-old who was in school for four years, partying and getting good grades who majored in a field related to your business, or a 22 year-old who has work experience and aced online courses that demonstrably equip them to perform the tasks you need done?  To round out the picture, consider that these online startups are much more plugged into the trends and responsive to the rapid pace of the market than the university, which is notoriously slow to adapt to market forces;  as such, they are more likely to produce the content that transmits the skills that employers actually want.

I don’t presume to pass judgment on whether or not this is a good or bad thing.  But I do think it is incumbent on us to contemplate the disruptions to come, and to consider a) how this will affect the quality of education, and b) how we, as educators, are to surf these turbulent seas, whether we operate within or outside the university.