By Alanna Klapp

The internet spawned seismic shifts in the music, travel, and retail industries, and a similar movement is underway in higher education, called MOOCs, or massive open online classes. Online educational startups like Coursera partnered with top-tier institutions like Princeton and Stanford to offer over 100 free MOOCs last year. The classes have attracted hundreds of thousands of students worldwide, making a college education possible for a diverse group of people.

“The MOOC issue appears to be a growing movement at a scale we haven’t seen since the return of GIs after WWII,” says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

The introduction of MOOCs is a major transformation in higher education with domestic and global implications, says Broad. Currently fifty major universities have offered free online courses with worldwide access. “The evidence so far indicates there is a keen interest by individuals in other parts of the world to take advantage of American higher education and the faculty that populates these fine colleges and universities. I believe it’s potentially a game-changer,” Broad says.

Why do MOOCs draw so many students? The classes are an opportunity for people living all around the world to gain access to some of the finest academic thinking in the U.S. “For individuals who are hungry to raise themselves out of poverty, to get a job when they don’t have one, or to get a better job, it’s a powerful motivation, because it’s so easy to take advantage of this learning,” Broad says. MOOCs also attract single parents, full-time workers, and traditional students who live on campus.

Stephen Green, president of Graduate Programs at 2U, an online educational company which provides graduate programs to universities like Georgetown and the University of Southern California, agrees access and flexibility make MOOCs attractive. “When great institutions step up and do it, it reflects the fact that U.S. education is still widely regarded in the world. If you combine that with people’s growing comfort with technology, it can lead to strong learning,” says Green.

Enrollment data points to the diversity of MOOC students. The 2U teaching program, for example, enrolls people from forty-five states and thirty-nine countries. Along with a diverse online student body, 2U works with its partners to bring the universities’ diversity programs and resources from campus into the online realm. For instance, The USC School of Social Work hosts an annual day of events and sessions centered on diversity, All School Day; this year’s theme was the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Riders. USC invited Freedom Riders to the celebration, while almost 1,000 online students participated via 2U’s live feed.

Diversity also enhances the online educational experience. The 2U technology platform allows students and professors to have a synchronous environment. “They [are in] real class time,” Green says. “When you talk about diversity, the programs we partner to build with have students with all different kinds of backgrounds, and the enrichment of those discussions is pretty incredible. Think about a social work course, or an education course dealing with societal context, with people from all over the world and the country bringing their perspectives,” he added.

This rapid advancement of online education is not without significant challenges. Quality is a major issue.

“These individual courses need to be assessed to see if they are comparable to the quality of courses offered on the campus,” says Broad. Other concerns include making counseling and tutoring available, identity authentication of students, online cheating, and how to access essential reading and study materials.

Despite the challenges, the online education trend shows promise. Companies like Coursera and 2U plan to continue to partner with top-tier schools. Broad thinks MOOCs will open up higher education for people who did not have a chance to attend college, did not graduate, or live in poverty. “If you grow up in poverty, or if you are a person of color, the evidence suggests that even if you have the academic potential, you don’t always have the opportunity to realize that potential. MOOCs will open up many new pathways,” Broad says.

Green agrees online education has room for growth. “Over the next fifteen to twenty years, as adoption [of MOOCs] continues to gain and more great schools jump in and force the bar to raise for quality, you’re going to see more and more people have access,” he says. MOOCs have the potential to shrink the gap between those with and without college degrees for a more educated and prosperous world.