03/19/2013 10:16 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

College Admissions in the Age of the MOOCs

Welcome to the age of the MOOCs.

The acronym might sound like a character out of Star Wars, but MOOCs -- "massive open online courses" -- are real. I can't keep up with how many exist, but let's just say that if you are enrolled in or teaching any course right now, or simply curious about a subject, you can find a MOOC on it.

We're not talking about reality TV for the nerd set -- these courses are taught by the best teachers in the world -- not just leading professors, teachers. Some of the cyber-profs are so engaging that they achieve "rock star" status, according to Thomas Friedman's recent New York Times column "The Professor's Big Stage." The MOOCs are pushing everyone to sharpen their game, and the debate is on whether this is a good thing for education. I'll pass on that one, but would like to throw out some suggestions for using MOOCs to improve our misguided college admissions process.

If used properly, MOOCs could take the guesswork out of college admissions, save colleges money and deliver students who are ready and willing to learn. What if students were asked to enroll in several MOOCs the summer before senior year? Since MOOCs are often tied to a specific college, this would force students to narrow their intellectual interests and consider which colleges best serve them. Surprisingly, such an inquiry is often ignored by college applicants. Through the MOOC experience, students can see if they meet the college's expectations, and professors discover which students have the intellectual gifts and grit to merit admission.

It seems like a win-win, except that colleges would have to accept the MOOC standouts, undermining the effort to "create a community" we hear so much about. Colleges can have their carefully constructed communities, but let's at least give another option to students who do not believe learning should be limited to eighteenth-century classrooms and walled campuses. I propose a MOOC-track for students clearly capable of doing the academic work, but for whom the community (and its distractions) does not hold much allure. Some might say a MOOC-track degree would be a lesser one -- I say let students and their future employers decide.

It seems like education is developing along these parallel tracks anyway, and I'm not sure what traditional colleges can do to reverse course. Universities might claim classroom teaching surpasses the online experience, but they are coming too late to the teaching game. Decades of failing to emphasize teaching in academia has left us with professors more suited for YouTube than MOOCs. Likewise, the espoused value of interpersonal exchange does not hold weight when students can hop online and chat with others across the globe in seconds.

While they might turn teaching into an American Idol of sorts (not a bad thing!), the MOOCs benefit traditional professors who have been complaining for years that American students arrive on campus unprepared and complacent. Adding MOOCs to the equation allows professors to assume that students will show up with a certain level of knowledge and engagement in the subject. Students can get to the task of learning on the first day, instead of meandering until all of a sudden graduation is upon them. Maybe our students will even make up some ground on their global competitors, who focus on a chosen academic discipline starting in tenth grade.

The MOOCs can also help correct the admissions disconnect between selective colleges and students trapped in terrible high schools. First of all, MOOCs are free. The only cost is desire and determination. Of course, a student needs access to a computer or cell phone, and this must be addressed for MOOCs to have a real socio-economic impact. If they can get beyond that technological hurdle, there are no limits to what any student from any background can learn. Students who do not have the luxury of leaving home will not be shut out of classes their peers might be too hung over to attend.

I recognize that MOOCs have bugs that need to be worked out -- cheating, access to technology, the ease of dropping out -- but the best minds at the most progressive, tech-savvy schools are committed to the enterprise. I've got my money on them.

So, we are in the age of the MOOCs, and it is not science fiction. That said, MOOCs do share what we love most about science fiction -- the thrill of what can be.