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Internet to Bring Down the Sky-High Cost of Higher Ed, Experts Say

Yale University offers free courses online.jpg

Yale University's New Haven, Conn., campus is beautiful -- but a growing number of students are skipping the quad in favor of free online classes. (Yale University)

Call it better learning through technology -- and cheaper.

As college and university classrooms around the country fill with students facing mind-numbing tuition, free online classes are filling up too -- and their rising number threatens to destroy the current model that has student loans soaring and parents feeling the bite, experts told FoxNews.com.

“The current system makes little sense,” argues Henry Eyring, author of The Innovative University. “A student pays one amount regardless of credit load or type of course being taken, and the university has no financial incentive to help the student get a good grade,” he told FoxNews.com.

Similar to how media began “supplementing” printed newspapers in the 90s with free online editions -- which transformed business models and made the news largely “free” on the web for consumers -- free online courses might (perhaps unintentionally) ultimately force tuition closer to zero. 

Exhibit A is Stanford's new "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” class. It’s entirely online. It’s free. And it even promises student feedback, in addition to an unaccredited but still résumé-worthy “Statement of Accomplishment.”

As a result, more than 135,000 students have enrolled from around the world, causing a temporary halt in registration. How 'bout them apples?

Stanford is far from the only one making a bet on free online courses. MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and dozens of other iconic universities are getting involved as well.

Why on Earth would a tuition-based university do this? In a word, exposure, said Diana Kleiner, professor and director of Open Yale Courses.

“It's allowed the University to increase its international presence,” Kleiner told FoxNews.com. In fact, Time recently named Yale’s free online repository one of the 50 best websites of 2011.

It wasn’t always that way. Until the recent trend of free online classes, Yale, Stanford and Oxford were having difficulty getting people enrolled in tuition-based online classes. That all changed in 2006.

“That year, we decided a better approach was for Yale to share a selection of complete undergraduate courses for free over the Internet,” Kleiner said.

The rest is history, she added. “What’s unique about Open Yale Courses is most people who view them tell us that they are taking the entire course -- that is, they are listening to every lecture and doing the reading. This new approach works well with Yale's primary mission, which is to create and disseminate knowledge.”

Of course, universities don’t want free online courses cannibalizing tuition. Which is why a majority of the 400 free courses from top universities don't provide certification or access to faculty. Oxford is particularly adamant about the distinction.

“We do not offer free courses online,” Carolyne Culver told FoxNews.com of the university’s popular and free iTunes lectures. “An Oxford education is very much tutorial based, with one or two students meeting regularly with a tutor. We cannot replicate our teaching methods online.”

The same goes for scientific lab work, Culver added. Which is why the university and others largely view free online classes as recruiting and promotional tools, not a substitute for tuition.

Online learning changes that though, driving down the cost of a traditional education, Eyring said. For example, per-course pricing instead of semester-based is making waves, not to mention a new option of taking an online course for free, then paying a fee for credit upon completion.

Consequently, universities that fail to embrace the change could face irrelevancy, or worse, extinction.

“Online learning will disrupt only those traditional universities and colleges that don't adopt it,” Eyring concluded. “The much greater risk will be to institutions that are imitating the elite schools' emphasis on scholarship and graduate programs but aren't investing in online learning innovations for their undergraduate students.”

Which explains why so many iconic universities are getting on board with free or otherwise innovative online classes. And why upstart universities are often more flexible when it comes to attending class.

As for students, who have seen college tuition skyrocket by more than 400 percent over the last 30 years, the trend couldn’t be any more welcome.

Blake Snow is a freelance journalist, media consultant from Utah and graduate of Brigham Young University (Go, Cougars!). Contact him via his website, blakesnow.com