07/02/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

What Can MOOCs Do for American Higher Education?

MOOCs--that is, massively open online courses--are only two years old. But many thought leaders are already suggesting that these free classes, which are being produced largely by elite U.S. colleges and universities, can dramatically increase access to a high quality college education domestically and abroad.

That's important, of course. Just as important, though, is the potential of MOOCs to do what matters most for our nation's higher education system: improve the value proposition of college, by making it cheaper for students to earn a valuable degree and more likely that they will do so.

In the face of state budget cuts, colleges have continued to jack up tuition at a rate that far exceeds inflation, driving American student debt above $1 trillion. At the same time, only half of students who start working toward a degree ever receive one. And we lack systemic ways to determine whether those are degrees of quality--that is, whether students learned what they needed to.

Under the right conditions, MOOCs may be able to help change that equation. If they replace more expensive on-campus courses, they can keep costs down. If colleges and universities pass on those savings via lower tuition, they can lighten the financial strain on students. If MOOC providers continue and expand upon their efforts to use data to measure every student's learning and diagnose strengths and weakness, they can blaze a much-needed path to helping professors and colleges understand how to improve educational quality.

Some institutions are using MOOCs to supplement the material they offer in traditional classes. This can make for engaging and effective classes, but will do little to control rising costs over the long term. MOOCs will help keep costs down substantially only if a significant number of credits earned through MOOCs actually replace face-to-face courses, eliminating some of the costs associated with delivering course content.

This is being loudly resisted by some faculty, and is certainly a politically tricky proposition given the significant influence professors have in the governance of colleges and universities. But it has some momentum behind it. The nation's largest higher education association, the American Council on Education, has begun certifying certain MOOCs as worthy of college credit. Some colleges have begun accepting MOOCs as freestanding components of degree programs. And some states--most notably California, where budget cuts have constricted access to college--are considering incentives for public colleges to work with MOOC providers to deliver courses that are in very high demand but short supply.

Even if MOOCs are accepted for credit more often, it remains to be seen whether traditional colleges and universities will pass cost savings on to students. Recent experience shows that this is not a given: Traditional colleges and universities have been offering more of their own online courses, yet tuition continues to rise, suggesting that schools are using the savings for other purposes.

But new kinds of degree programs may soon force colleges to lower the price of a degree, to pass on to students the savings from using technology. College accreditors last year approved College for America, a program developed by Southern New Hampshire University that will award associate's degrees solely on the basis of what students know, not how many courses they have taken. If assessments show that a student has mastered a series of specific competencies--having gained them anywhere, including through MOOCs--the student will receive a degree.

The U.S. Department of Education this year invited institutions to develop similar competency-based degree programs, and many are considering doing so. This may increase degree completion significantly, as students who cannot afford rising tuition or cannot travel to campus for a class on the three mornings a week it is offered could instead master content anywhere, anytime, for free. As MOOCS increasingly help students obtain such degrees, some brick-and-mortar colleges may be forced to lower their prices to compete.

In the end, MOOCs will only provide a net benefit to the country if the courses are high-quality. Certainly they come with a pedigree: Among the most notable providers, edX is affiliated with MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley, among others; Coursera's consortium includes Princeton, Stanford, and Duke. But more important than the reputations of the colleges involved is whether and how MOOCs aim to measure and improve the quality of learning they provide over time.

With the data garnered from massive student course-taking, each MOOC course can be evaluated on many metrics: which types of students succeed in the course, which course components along the way contribute to that success, whether its students go on to complete degrees, and more. Those results need to be compared to what students gain from traditional courses, so we know when MOOCs can effectively stand alone and when it is better for a professor to remain engaged with students in a traditional or blended classroom.

If MOOC providers keep asking those questions, and adapting based on the answers, it is quite possible for MOOCs to measure up to their hype--and for students, and the country, to benefit tremendously as a result.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in which a variety of thinkers, writers and experts will explore the most pressing issues of our time. For more posts from this partnership, click here. For more information on The Aspen Institute, click here.