A revolution in the making? Massive open online courses aim to change the face of online education

If you're like most high school students, you may have heard about the importance of going to college, and how you need to prepare in order to succeed when you get there. But what are college classes really like?

Now you can find out, by taking classes from some of the most prestigious schools in the country — for free! How is this possible? Through a development in distance education known as massive online open courses, or MOOCs. This approach to online education has recently been building momentum.

Distance education, of course, has been around for a long time, and including online courses as part of a college curriculum is nothing new. In fact, online courses are more popular than ever: a recent study found that more than 6 million college students took at least one college course online in the fall 2010 term, representing 31% of all college students nationwide.

These courses, however, are for the most part offered by traditional universities as part of a blended approach to college education, or by an increasing number of online only institutions; in both cases, students are charged tuition and the class sizes are limited.

As the name suggests, MOOCs operate according to a very different educational model: students pay no fee to enroll, and class size is theoretically unlimited. As a result, many MOOCs have enrollments in the tens of thousands.

The MOOC trend takes off

Remarkably, universities and private companies are racing to get into the MOOC arena at the ground floor. The first MOOC to garner widespread attention was offered by a Stanford University professor in the fall of 2011; that professor has gone on to found Udacity, a private company that offers more than a dozen courses in science, math, and computer programming. Since then, Stanford has partnered with a number of prestigious schools (including Columbia University, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, Rice University, the Berklee College of Music, and the University of London) to offer MOOCs in a wide range of fields through a company called Coursera. Harvard University, MIT, and the University of California at Berkeley have since partnered to offer their own MOOC platform, called edX.

Those are some heavy hitters, but what does this mean to you? For now, it means you can sign up to get a taste of what the best schools in the country have to offer. While completing the course means you'll learn a lot, for the most part, you won't get college credit. But that may be changing: students enrolled in courses offered by edX or Udacity have the option to take proctored exams for credit (albeit for an $89 fee), and at least one university has announced that it will grant students transfer credit for one of these courses.

It's a small inroad into the traditional college system, but the world of MOOCs is off to a gallop. Who knows? By the time you get to college, you may be able to save a little tuition money by taking a class through a MOOC — all while learning from instructors at world-class universities.