When we think of post-secondary education, we often think of the thousands of ivy-walled educational institutions that dot the country. But what if there was no campus, no classroom, no masses of denim-clad students taking notes? What if everyone just stayed home?

Despite the fact that the technology for online learning has been advanced enough to create this sort of learning space for quite some time, most people can hardly imagine it. That's why the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is poised to remake our image of higher education in a big way, despite the fact that at the moment, even a lot of college students or grads have never even heard of this kind of distance learning.

In late 2012, The New York Times reported that MOOCs have emerged quickly on the educational horizon, with many thousands of students in each single course offering, and more than a million students enrolled with top MOOC providers like Coursera, some of which have grown exponentially as major colleges have partnered with them to offer more of these large-scale course offerings.

But what are MOOCs, and why are they so important? Part of the reason has to do with something simple: the profit motive. Beyond that, MOOCs are also using some of the newest ideas about how technology can help the modern student, and worker, to thrive in fast-changing world.

What's a Massive Open Online Course?

In a sense, MOOCs are simply high-enrollment online courses that offer a model where students "log in" to classes rather than attending at a physical location. There are typical conventions to these courses that allow for interactive participation, such as dedicated online forums for a particular class. But here's where MOOCs really stand out: They tend to be tuition-free, a somewhat radical concept in an age where conventional tuition prices have become increasingly unaffordable. For some, it’s this idea that drives interest in a MOOC course. In the days of cloud education, new options are showing that the practical learning non-credit courses can provide may be worth a lot. After all, the workplace changes a lot faster than it has in previous decades, putting the onus on employees to keep their skills up to speed. (Learn more about e-learning in this infographic, Cloud Computing in the Classroom.)

Connectivism: The Theory Behind the MOOC

The underlying philosophy behind MOOCs is called connectivism, a view of learning that applies networking principles to define knowledge and the process of learning. Much like the creation of a neural network, connectivist learning aims to use technology as a tool to link ideas, people and information sources, effectively extending our cognitive networks - and perhaps human knowledge as a whole. Many of the features of MOOC courses support this concept, which, like many other related ideas, was born in the early days of the 21st century, as humans took a look at new and improved realms of data and used them to innovate in many fields.

MOOCs and For-Profit Distance Learning Schools

Another way to understand the nature of a MOOC program is to contrast it with the conventional online college course, which offers credits for cash. Many of the same kinds of setups used in these courses, such as online tests and labs, forum-posted syllabus materials, and more, can also be keystones of a MOOC design. The core difference is profit and the issue of outcome. After all, when students pay thousands of dollars for an online course, they expect it to produce a tangible return in terms of career prospects and earnings. Investigation into the actual "value" of courses from huge online educators like Phoenix University and Kaplan emerged in 2012, and included reports on government monitoring of these schools; work by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee uncovered high dropout rates, poor returns on tax dollars and other issues related to what students get for their money.

Of course, MOOCs can also have high rates of attrition, and experts are looking closely at how many students succeed in this learning environment. In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, describes how the first rounds of MOOCs lacked incentives for student achievement, and how this paradigm was in some ways given a "free ride" by education experts, partly because of the prestigious universities involved in pioneering them. Obviously, the idea that MOOCs are free and open, rather than costly credit earners, had more than a little to do with their gentler treatment as well.

"Quality in online learning can be defined in many ways: quality of content, quality of design, quality of instructional delivery, and, ultimately, quality of outcomes," writes Legon. "On the face of it, the organizing principles of MOOCs are at odds with widely observed best practices in online education, including those advocated by my organization, the Quality Matters Program. Many of the first MOOCs are providing quality of content, but are far behind the curve in providing quality of design, accountable instructional delivery, or sufficient resources to help the vast majority of students achieve a course’s intended learning outcomes."

Part of the criticism in general is that while a MOOC may work well for a "self-starter," many students with average attention spans and organizational skills are less than suited to dig into the complex "networks" that these designs offer, and to use the diverse online tools effectively to get results.

What Do Students Think?

Another way to look at MOOCs is to think about what students value in these types of courses. Despite the skepticism about average students being able to tackle this educational style, coverage by The New York Times shows students who are grateful for the challenges and structure that a MOOC provides. These students report being able to work through technical assignments in a cloud-connected learning environment. Other students posting on designated MOOC forums often comment on the "personality" or leadership qualities of the professors delivering these courses, which makes sense, since more sanguine educational styles can help with the challenge of accessing education through one of these distributed courses.

Does the future of education include college campuses and traditional classrooms? So far, it doesn't look like that type of learning is going anywhere. The bottom line is that while they may not be for everybody, MOOCs are offering a brave new option at a time when traditional college degrees have lost a little of their shine.