Philip Zelikow, associate dean for graduate academic programs at the University of Virginia, leads a discussion in his course “The Modern World: Global History Since 1760.” It’s a massive open online course, or MOOC. (Norm Shafer for The Washington Post)

Last school year, the term MOOC (massive open online course) skyrocketed into popularity as an important new experiment in higher education. This year may be the school year that the MOOC truly goes mainstream. This will mark the first year, for example, that it will be possible to receive a “super-cheap” master’s degree via MOOCs. Now that Silicon Valley companies like Google are showing signs of jumping aboard the MOOC bandwagon, it could forever change the way we think about the college experience. Instead of graduating with a degree from a traditional four-year university, you may one day graduate with a degree from the University of Google.

Take, for example, last month’s announcement of a partnership among Google, Harvard and MIT to expand the edX educational initiative to create a broad educational platform for free online courses. Google’s goal, it appears, is to think about education the same way we think about software and operating systems. If it’s possible to create open-source software, then it must be possible to create an open-source education. That means making a top-tier education widely available to anyone with an Internet connection, wherever they are in the world. You no longer have to attend Harvard to get a Harvard education.

Also, in tandem with the edX announcement, Google is supporting the launch of, a future one-stop-shop for anyone trying to create an educational experience from scratch. Once it goes live in 2014, will host free online courses from universities, businesses, governments and not-for-profit providers. That means that, instead of signing up for four years of courses at a single university, you could conceivably mix-and-match your course offerings from any of the world’s best universities. Or, if you don’t think a university’s math, science and engineering classes are preparing you for the workplace after graduation, you could add in courses from local businesses or nonprofits.

Think of courses like apps, and your education as an operating system.

Once you start to think of online education as being either proprietary (the way it works now) or open source (the way it might work in the future), it starts to raise a number of interesting questions, both economic and philosophical. For example, if a full Ivy League education is available to anyone for free with an Internet connection, what are the compelling reasons to pay tens of thousands of dollars each year for an Ivy League education? If the same courses are available from a four-year university and from Google, which ones offer more bang for the buck?

It’s hard to argue against an innovative concept that has been hailed as the savior of higher education, but there are still a number of questions to be answered before MOOCs are able to fulfill all of their early promise and truly bring down the cost of college tuition. One of the hardest questions is how to extend the MOOC experience from the sciences and engineering to the humanities, where it’s much harder to grade and assess knowledge. And, speaking of grading, there’s still plenty of room for debate about how much students really learn online. Do they learn more sleeping through an early morning lecture in the classroom, or late at night, while they are interrupted every few minutes by emails, social media updates and text messages while watching courses online?

Despite these questions, it’s hard not to get starry-eyed by how MOOCs are transforming university professors into international rock stars. As Thomas Friedman noted in an article about MOOCs, a professor like Harvard’s Michael Sandel now can sell out a 14,000-seat amphitheater in South Korea for a lecture on “justice” and rack up 20 million views for his course videos in China. (Sandel was also one of the early pioneers on the Harvard-MIT edX platform) Google’s mission has always been to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. By pushing into the area of MOOCs and higher education, it may get its next big chance.