I have just enrolled in a university course called Introduction to Sociology taught out of Princeton University. It is the same course that is given to the students at Princeton except that for myself and 30,000 others enrolled in the course, it is free.

This course is one of about 50 or so other courses anyone can enrol in on a site called Coursera. The courses come from academics at Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, University of California Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania. And for the moment, they are all free.

Not to be outdone, Harvard University and MIT have announced their own version of Coursera called edX. They plan to offer a range of courses in the third quarter of 2012.

The availability of free content from university courses is not new. MIT has been offering content from a range of its courses. Universities have been offering free access to lectures and other material for download through iTunesU.

The difference with Coursera and edX is that an entire course is offered which is interactive, has assessment components and offers a certificate of completion.

It is the move from simple content to content plus interactivity that makes free online courseware so disruptive to the higher education sector.

I have often wondered why every university in the world needed to teach exactly the same subjects every year, when the means are now available for anyone in the world to access a subject from a single provider. There are only so many ways you can teach introductory courses, for example, just like there is a limit to the number of introductory textbooks that need to be written. Once you have recorded a version of the course, why is it that we need to have someone deliver that content live each year? More to the point, what right does a university have in charging for that?

Then there is the issue that even within universities, academics are coping with larger class sizes on smaller budgets. But most are still persevering with the same traditional (and expensive!) approaches to teaching and learning that they have always used when class sizes were more manageable and they had teaching assistants to help.

Stanford Professor Peter Norvig has discussed the ways in which he and Sebastian Thrun modified a course on artificial intelligence to allow for 160,000 people to enrol in it. Ironically, he managed to keep many of the same principles of one-on-one tutoring in the online format. He also kept the videos short (2 – 6 minutes) in the style of Salman Khan’s online teaching videos at the Khan Academy.

In online courses, assessment can be done with little to no cost by either fully automatically using multiple choice quizzes or by using peer assessment. Support is also crowdsourced. Responses to questions and queries can be rated to guide students into filtering the most appropriate answers (this is similar to the approach taken by a tech support site called Stack Overflow and it is incredibly effective).

There are a number of motivations for universities to support the move to online courseware. First of all they are able to explore more effective ways of delivering courseware to their own on-campus students. This extends into carrying out research into this area because of the mass of data that they will be collecting. Then there are the reputational and marketing elements of it all. There is probably no more effective mechanism of enhancing your reputation as a university than providing high quality courseware for free to massive numbers of people around the world.

The big question of course is whether money can be made out of all of this. That is more difficult. Providing official accreditation for the courses, and even full degrees, may be one way. Charging small amounts for participation is another. But at the end of the day, it may be something that is done just for the sake of providing access to high quality education resources on a global scale.

There is no doubt that this will be disruptive to the higher education sector. You would have to wonder why anyone would do an Introduction to X at Y University and pay for the privilege when they can do it for free from Princeton, Harvard or MIT. It is not going to be long before students start asking their universities these questions.

It is clear that for those universities that only do teaching and struggle to attract quality staff and students, the future is as bright as it is for newspaper companies still clinging to the ideal of print.

David Glance does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Associate Professor David Glance is director of the UWA Centre for Software Practice, a UWA research and development centre. Originally a physiologist working in the area of vascular control mechanisms...