“Universities as we know them will not exist 100 years from now,” DeMillo said. “There may be a couple recognizable names, maybe Harvard or Oxford. But higher education will be universally accessible, mediated by technology, probably offered through a variety of commercial platforms and very, very inexpensive.”

Knowledge will become a commodity and in fact, is already headed in that direction, adds Cameron Evans, CTO of U.S. education at Microsoft.

That’s why higher education will have to figure out how to make the college experience more about applying knowledge rather than capturing knowledge.

“If there’s anything that will be significantly different 25 years from today, it’s that people won’t go to school for knowledge,” Evans said. “They will go to school for an experience that they couldn’t otherwise have gotten online.”

Students’ school experience will focus on higher-order activities, with professors acting as facilitators of project-based learning or independent tutors of higher-level understanding, said Michael Staton, co-founder of Inigral, a private Facebook community for colleges and universities. High-quality content creation, delivery and assessment will move online.

“If you can learn the same content online at the same pace or even at a more rapid pace, what is the point of going to school?” Staton asked.

A New Divide?

One danger of the pure technology model, Taiz said, is that students who don’t have much money will attend technology-mediated schools. And students with more resources will go to prestigious university campuses such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.

But others argue that the divide has little to do with technology. “We have big socioeconomic gaps in who goes to what kind of college,” said Kauffman’s Wildavsky. “So it’s not that this advent of technology is going to create something that didn’t exist already.”

Nor are all technology-mediated models necessarily bad. Older working students especially benefit from the opportunities of online classes. And some students may choose a technology-mediated education because the experience is good enough, Wildavsky said.

For example, former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun taught an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course on campus in 2011 with Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research. But they also opened up the course online at no charge to anyone in the world who wanted to participate. As a result, many of the students from the face-to-face class opted to participate online.

As more and more students apply, top universities are becoming more selective, adds DeMillo. They’re selecting students by the quality of their high school education, which means they’re selecting by ZIP code and economic status.

“We’re going through that now, and it has nothing to do with online education,” DeMillo said.

Online Courses, Supersized

Massively open online courses have been around in some form for at least four years. But their popularity exploded in 2012 after Stanford’s experiments — and these efforts will continue to reshape higher education.

Thrun left Stanford to co-found Udacity, which launched to offer high-quality, low- cost classes. More than 160,000 students from more than 190 countries signed up for Udacity’s first artificial intelligence course.

Two other Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, spun off a company called Coursera. And, in 2012, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up to start the not-for-profit edX. These organizations — along with Udemy and other academics — all offer massively open online courses that are available to anyone, with unlimited space and no charge.

“I think not only are they sustainable, as you look at the economics of the cloud,” Evans said,“[but also] they’ve become the norm.”

The question isn’t so much whether they can be sustained technologically or economically, he said, but whether people can stay engaged in the course. And that’s one of the challenges these course providers will have to face.

Currently the courses are not as engaging because students don’t build an affinity for the university or make friendships like they do on campus, Evans said. As 3-D technology and 4K resolution displays and video improve, they will help students make deeper emotional and social connections.

However, these courses are only for certain types of students; they won’t meet everyone’s needs, Taiz said. “I worry if we think that this is the way of the future.”

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers ed tech behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Culinary experiments, travel adventures, beautiful landscapes.