They also have a high dropout rate, she said. Before MIT joined its online course efforts with Harvard in edX, it offered “Circuits and Electronics” under the name MITx. Nearly 155,000 people signed up, according to MIT. Of these students, less than 15 percent tried the first problem set — and fewer than 5 percent passed the course.

The dropout rate is really not exceptionally high in context, DeMillo said. A 20 percent retention rate in these courses is good. In other businesses, an online conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent is considered a win.

Since January, top research universities have banded together to offer courses featuring their rock star professors. Georgia Tech started offering classes through Coursera in July and had 90,000 students registered in two months.

“The high-quality portion of this story is really important,” DeMillo said. “The reason people are flocking to these courses is that the quality of the courses is so high, and it’s such a compelling experience for students that they’re drawn to it.”

Alternative Paths

Online classes like these will be just one of the alternative paths that students can take down the road, Wildavsky said. Students will choose from multiple options, including online classes, traditional course credits and competency-based learning.

Traditional course credits measure time spent learning, while competency-based learning measures mastery of skills and knowledge. Western Governors University ­— an accredited online university founded by 19 state governors — follows the competency-based learning path. A start-up called StraighterLine offers online classes a la carte for $99 a month, which is part of a trend called unbundling, Wildavsky said.

Unbundling disassembles higher education into pieces and parcels them off to whoever can provide them at the highest quality for the lowest price. Think of it as contracting out teaching, curriculum, advising and other services. Once companies like StraighterLine can get universities to recognize their classes for credit, this will be yet another option for students to access higher education.

“We’re going to move to a world where academic results matter much more than how you get there,” he added.

No matter how students get there, they need to earn a recognized credential that gets them into the workplace in larger numbers, Evans said. According to a 2011 Pathways to Prosperity project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 56 percent of students at four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. And less than 30 percent earn an associate’s degree in three years.

Students will not complete all of their learning at one institution. But students who currently transfer to multiple institutions end up with more credits than they need to finish a degree. States will need to think about ways to have credits and academic experience transfer to any public institution across their state system. That way, students can finish their degrees without worrying about credits transferring or retaking courses elsewhere.

“As students become far more mobile, their academic experience has to be as portable as the mobility they represent in their own lives,” Evans said. “And that’s where technology can enable that portability to happen in a far greater way than what we have today.”

Because academic results will matter more than how students get there, accreditors will change the way they evaluate institutions. Currently institutions are evaluated by inputs like the size of the university library or the amount universities spend. In the future, accreditors will evaluate universities by outputs, which include student learning, student success in the labor market and graduation rates.

Along with multiple pathways and different accreditation measurements, credentials will change. Over the next five to 10 years, people will get a job solely by earning micro-credentials, demonstrating competency and showcasing their knowledge and skills on the Internet, Staton said.

By placing more value on what people can do, everyone will focus on the actual work of potential employees rather than being hung up on credentials, he said. But that doesn’t mean that a bachelor’s degree has no place. Society may decide that a degree is important because of other signals it conveys about the individual, such as being highly socialized, capable of doing long-term projects or having a supportive family. Either way, this focus on the work rather than the diploma will undercut the skyrocketing prices of undergraduate education and potentially some types of graduate education.

Depending on who casts the vision, higher education could be headed down a road that leads to technology-mediated or technology integrated learning. Students could travel multiple paths to get to academic results. And technology could play an increasing role in making higher education accessible and affordable. “It shouldn’t be [about] funding monolithic technology platforms; there will be no monolithic technology platforms,” Staton said. “It will be about interoperability, not about one solution for the entire system.”

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.