Nightly News   |  January 31, 2013

Are online classes key to higher ed?

Dozens of elite institutions are now partnering with start-up companies such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, to deliver so-called massive open online courses or MOOCs. NBC’s Rehema Ellis reports.

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>>> we are back now as promised with what could be the key to higher education and perhaps even brils for a lot of folks who don't necessarily have the time or money for college. say nothing of an ivy league school. online learning is hardly new. it's been around for a long time. but open-access to classes at some of this nation's most prestigious institutions is new. and people of all kinds and all ages are signing on. our report from our chief education correspondent, rehema ellis.

>> reporter: the college classroom is changing. courses from some of the world's most elite universities are now available to anyone for free. at a furious pace, schools are participating with start-up companies like courseera to deliver online courses .

>> much faster than any of us were expecting. we reached our first 1 million users faster than facebook.

>> reporter: physics, poetry, astronomy, even guitar, all just a click away. university of virginia retooled his modern history course for this semester's online debut. the class usually open to 120 students saw enrollment soar.

>> 42,000 students around the world.

>> reporter: to put it in perspective, in order to reach the same number of students, this professor would have to teach his course here at the university of virginia for 350 years. since 2011 , some 2.5 million students from hundreds of countries have signed on, even though many are not offered for credit and completion rates are low, some educators say the potential exists to revolutionize higher learning . 38-year-old dawn smith was looking to change careers.

>> i wanted to go into health care communications. but i needed some textbook knowledge. and i felt that in order to be taken seriously as a candidate, i needed to show that i was doing something proactive.

>> reporter: there are concerns, however, about measuring student progress. the lack of student-professor interaction, even the sustainability of moox.

>> imagine taking a university and removing all of the really fun stuff and all you're left with is me talking to you through a camera. that's not that good for anybody.

>> reporter: still, universities are experimenting with new ways to expand learning and potentially revenue, as well. rehema ellis, nbc news, charlottesville, virginia.