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As politicians and academics debate the future of higher education, it is already happening — in dorm rooms, off-campus apartments and living rooms around the world.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

For years, online classes existed on the margins of higher education. Then Silicon Valley startups devised slick platforms delivering elite university courses, free, to students everywhere. Suddenly, online studies have become central to discussions about the future.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

Proponents see online courses containing university costs, making college more affordable and instruction more engaging, raising completion rates, enrolling more students, graduating them faster, easing crowding and better preparing high-schoolers for college.

No one knows how effectively this experimental wonder drug can deliver a college education to the masses, though. Can virtual professors lecturing across the globe really be sure their students grasp everything from Camus to chemistry?

UC, CSU on board

The latest e-learning experiment of open access, with its explosive potential, has top universities and more than 3 million students jumping aboard. Less than a year old, the online education startup Coursera announced last week it would soon offer more than 300 courses from 62 universities around the world.

Most of these massive open online courses — MOOCs in campus lingo — have been offered with only a certificate of completion, no credit. That could soon change. This month, the American Council on Education recommended credit for four Coursera undergraduate math and science courses from Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and UC Irvine.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are rolling out similar initiatives with renewed gusto.

At the University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, leaders recently floated the idea of undergraduates taking 10 percent of their courses online. The system’s outgoing president, Mark Yudof, said students everywhere should be able to use credits from online courses “from UC’s own distinguished faculty” to transfer to a UC campus.

California State University is a few steps ahead in the credit department: As soon as this summer, San Jose State and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.

As in other courses offered by the leading startups, professors create the content, giving it the university brand, and technologists package it. Most of the grading is automated.

Galatolo is also interested in seeing whether the company would design an online diagnostic test and personalized refresher course for the state’s incoming college students. That would keep tens of thousands of Californians from failing college placement tests and languishing in remedial classes, he said.

“I want students who come to us ready to go right into college,” he said.

Getting ahead

For students like Sergio Sandoval, online college courses provide a chance to get ahead. The high school junior from East Oakland would be the first in his family to attend a U.S. college — one of the kinds of students for whom the San Jose State pilot course is designed.

With access to cheap, for-credit courses, the thinking goes, the fate of bright young students like Sandoval won’t depend on what their high schools offer. Anyone with a high-speed Internet connection can take a shot at college work.

After a full day at the Oakland Military Institute, a charter school he travels across the city to attend, Sandoval returns home, has dinner and delves into an online statistics class, watching the videos and doing the exercises at his dining room table.

“Even if the credits don’t transfer, it’s still something you can put on your application — that you’ve taken your high school classes as well as the online classes, so you’re even more prepared for that college,” he said.

Possible pitfalls

Even before the rise of free, open courses, online education was becoming more common. The number of college students enrolled in an online course rose by nearly 5 million from 2002 to 2011.

But the prospect of for-credit college courses on a mass scale has raised a new set of questions: How well can students learn without interacting with instructors? How much money will universities save, and will they charge students less for cheaper courses? How will complex assignments be graded? Will robots replace professors?

Some experts say the rapid proliferation of online courses is bound to yield some inferior products. Cynics recently pounced on an ironic embarrassment for Coursera: Technical problems forced it to suspend its course on the fundamentals of online education.

“That’s what I worry about, the quality controls,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

A sobering statistic undercuts the hype: Just 10 percent of those who sign up for classes with the leading startups actually finish them. With that in mind, Udacity assigned mentors for students in its San Jose State test project. They will nudge students who seem to be falling behind.

As other students noted, Sandoval said a self-paced course takes more discipline than in-person classes. “Here, there is no teacher whatsoever telling me we need it done,” he said. “It’s all on you.”

Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, described similar pressures. Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateo instructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

New teaching style

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Still, Rogers doesn’t know if his instincts are right. “The first thing all of us want to know is, ‘Does it work?'” he said. “We want to know: Did they feel like they were just out there alone, or did they feel more connected?”

The San Jose State-Udacity project is undergoing an independent review to find out. Researchers will also explore which students are most likely to succeed — or not. It’s an important question if universities want to give poor or nontraditional students a leg up.

Online savings

Gov. Brown has argued that large, online courses could help make California’s colleges and universities more efficient. But forecasting profits or savings is a risky business, as UC has learned. Before startup companies began offering classes for free, the university decided to sell them to the public for credit — for up to $2,100 per course.

Since last year’s launch, five nonstudents have enrolled.

The online option can make college more affordable for students, however. Barham said it helped him transfer from a community college to UC Berkeley a year earlier than he otherwise would have, given his work schedule. Now at Cal, the legal studies major said taking statistics online has saved him more time and money.

Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

But when it comes to the UC system’s budget challenges, he said, educators should keep their online hopes in check. “I don’t think online education is the savior of the UC system or anything like that.”