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For those of us who still use calendars – the paper kind, with glossy photos of places we'd rather be – turning the page to August is always a bittersweet experience. It reminds us of the compressed nature of a Canadian summer and the cool nights that will soon herald its end.

August is also the month when the phrase "back to school" re-enters our daily lexicon, sending shivers up the spine of the Huck Finn in us all and a wave of relief among parents everywhere. It's the month when we have to get serious about our futures again.

For university students, August means scrambling to register for classes and pick courses. With limited space in the most sought-after subjects taught by the best professors, settling for a second or third choice is often inevitable. Yet, students continue to pay more – tuition has risen far faster than inflation – while facing a job market where an undergrad degree is the minimum price of entry.

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One way universities are seeking to bring down costs for themselves and their students is by embracing online education. This has sparked one of the most bitter on-campus debates since Vietnam, only this time it's faculty members who are leading the protests. Most students seem cool with it.

To be sure, some professors see so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as a revolutionary development that will allow them to reach thousands of potential Einsteins or Aristotles while building their own brand. But they appear to be outnumbered by teachers who fear MOOCs will make them redundant and undermine the university experience.

The MOOC phenomenon is barely a year old, but it's exploding everywhere. The leading players include both for-profit "ed tech" start-ups, such as Silicon Valley-based Coursera, and edX, a non-profit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Several Canadian universities have signed up to offer courses on both platforms.

The MOOC (a term apparently coined by Canadian academics) started out as a free, not-for-credit course open to anyone. But now, dozens of U.S. schools are offering for-credit MOOCs with formal proctored exams. Thousands of American students entering college will no longer be forced to squeeze into overcrowded lecture halls for introductory courses. They'll log on to class from anywhere, and pay far less for the privilege.

The University of Alberta claims to be the first Canadian school to offer a for-credit MOOC with a paleontology course (dubbed Dino 101) that is now open for registration to students anywhere in the world, on the Coursera platform. The fee is half the price of a regular U of A course.

By far the biggest development of the MOOC era came in May, when 10 U.S. state university systems – including the massive 470,000-student State University of New York – formed a partnership with Coursera. The MOOC format, blended with face-to-face tutorials, may become the norm for dozens of introductory and required courses that are typically oversubscribed. University administrators predict that MOOCs will raise graduation rates and boost enrolment among underprivileged students, especially if they have to juggle their educations with jobs.

That was the premise behind a San Jose State University pilot project, championed by California Governor Jerry Brown, to use MOOCs for disadvantaged students who had already failed regular math courses or placement exams. But the MOOC failure rates were even higher, leading San Jose to suspend the project last month and prompting MOOC critics to pounce.

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Still, the stories of MOOC successes – of Pakistani twentysomethings logging on for an MIT economics class 11,000 kilometres away – underscore the potential. For a generation raised online, it seems only natural that their postsecondary education should go partly digital, too.

That doesn't mean there isn't a downside for some professors. MOOC critic Jonathan Rees, a University of Colorado history professor, predicts that the teaching profession could be divided in the future between a small number of star professors earning hefty MOOC royalties and an army of lower-paid teaching assistants without job security who will do the grunt work.

"From an administrative point of view, the beauty of MOOCs is that they provide an easy opportunity to drastically cut labour costs by firing existing faculty members or simply hiring poorly trained ones – whom they won't have to pay well – to help administer the class," Prof. Rees wrote in a recent Slate article. "Why should I hire a new PhD when I can get the best professors in the world piped into my university's classrooms?"

Students, please discuss.

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