The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.
At the recent news conference announcing edX, a $60 million Harvard-MIT partnership in online education, university leaders spoke of reaching millions of new students in India, China and around the globe. They talked of the "revolutionary" potential of online learning, hailing it as the "single biggest change in education since the printing press."
Heady talk indeed, but they are right. The nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.
These same university leaders mentioned the limits of edX itself. Its online courses would not lead to Harvard or MIT degrees, they noted, and were no substitute for the centuries-old residential education of their hallowed institutions. They also acknowledged that the initiative, which offers free online courses prepared by some of the nation's top professors, is paid for by university funds—and that there is no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain it.
In short, while they want to be part of the change they know is coming, they are uncertain about how to proceed. And in this Harvard and MIT are not alone. Stanford, for instance, offers a free online course on artificial intelligence that enrolls more than 150,000 students world-wide—but the university's path forward is similarly unclear. How can free online course content be paid for and sustained? How can elite institutions maintain their selectivity, and be rewarded for it, when anyone can take their courses?
This challenge can be met. Over the long term, online technology promises historic improvements in the quality of and access to higher education. The fact is, students do not need to be on campus at Harvard or MIT to experience some of the key benefits of an elite education. Moreover, colleges and universities, whatever their status, do not need to put a professor in every classroom. One Nobel laureate can literally teach a million students, and for a very reasonable tuition price. Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.
And lectures just scratch the surface of what is possible. Online technology lets course content be presented in many engaging formats, including simulations, video and games. It lets students move through material at their own pace, day or night. It permits continuing assessment, individual tutoring online, customized reteaching of unlearned material, and the systematic collection of data on each student's progress. In many ways, technology extends an elite-caliber education to the masses who would not otherwise have access to anything close.
Skeptics worry that online learning will destroy the "college experience," which requires that students be at a geographical place (school), interacting with one another and their professors. But such a disconnect isn't going to happen. The coming revolution is essentially about finding a new balance in the way education is organized—a balance in which students still go to school and have face-to-face interactions within a community of scholars, but also do a portion of their work online.
In this blended educational world, the Harvards and MITs will not be stuck charging tuition for on-campus education while they give away course materials online. They and other elite institutions employ world-renowned leaders in every discipline. They have inherent advantages in the creation of high-quality online content—which hundreds of other colleges and universities would be willing to pay for.
In this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.
Don't dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either. Institutions such as the University of Phoenix—and it is hardly alone—have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%. In time, they may do amazing things with computerized instruction—imagine equivalents of Apple or Microsoft, with the right incentives to work in higher education—and they may give elite nonprofits some healthy competition in providing innovative, high-quality content.
For now, policy makers, educators and entrepreneurs alike need to recognize that this is a revolution, but also a complicated process that must unfold over time before its benefits are realized. The MITs and Harvards still don't really know what they are doing, but that is normal at this early stage of massive change. Early stumbles and missteps (which edX may or may not be) will show the way toward what works, and what is the right balance between online and traditional learning.
But like countless industries before it, higher education will be transformed by technology—and for the better. Elite players and upstarts, not-for-profits and for-profits, will compete for students, government funds and investment in pursuit of the future blend of service that works for their respective institutions and for the students each aims to serve.
Mr. Chubb is interim CEO of Education Sector, an independent think tank, and a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Mr. Moe is professor of political science at Stanford and a senior fellow at Hoover. They are the authors of "Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education" (John Wiley & Sons 2009).