It seems to me that there are 3 basic components that are fundamental to university education:
* The social experience - being independent, learning self-reliance, putting up with other people, growth, and so on.
* The learning experience - the actual transfer of knowledge. Education. Reading books, writing stuff, understanding, professors, mentors, all of that.
* The verification of knowledge - actually getting a degree if you can prove you know enough.
These online courses - even if they do cover all the areas someone would need to study for a full degree - only handle the middle component. In many ways it's the most interesting and useful component, but it still leaves the other two areas uncovered.
I can see a market springing up around the third component. For instance, if you've completed a course with Coursera you get a certificate saying so. But what if a different body, one that was already accredited to award degrees, provided an 'exam' service for that course - even though Coursera provided the course itself. This degree-awarding body would be making sure you had learned enough of the right things from the Coursera course to reach an appropriate standard.
And if you reach the appropriate standard in enough courses, this accredited body awards you a degree. This accredited body could pick and choose which courses from which providers it accredited, giving it some control over what it deemed degree-worthy.
I can see that happening, but it does raise three interesting questions:
* What is to stop an existing university from doing this right now?
* If it happens, what will it do to the business model of the prestigious universities that are currently giving away their courses?
* If it happens, what will it do to the business model of the prestigious universities that are _not_ currently giving away their courses?
If someone can attain a degree through these Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), will people still pay a fortune to attend Harvard? Some will, some won't, but I can certainly see it affecting the premium Harvard is able to charge.
It only takes one degree-awarding body to decide to award based on other universities' courses for there to be significant disruption in the university business. Will it be a UK university?
As for the first component - the social aspect of university education? I've no idea what will happen there. If MOOCs take off there'll be local study groups for courses (which is already happening now to a limited extent). Will there be 'satellite campuses', near to population centres but disconnected from any particular university? Will MOOC students naturally gravitate together, or will they stay largely where they are, separate from each other?
Should be interesting to watch.