WASHINGTON -- It's more than 11,000 kilometers from Shakargarh, a city in northeastern Pakistan, to the venerated halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the top universities in the United States.
Twenty-five-year-old Khalid Raza lives in Shakargarh but is taking "The Challenges of Global Poverty," a course taught by a former adviser to the World Bank and a professor of international economics at MIT.
Recently, while on the bus, he pulled out his laptop and submitted one of his first assignments.
"It was an amazing experience when I was submitting my assignment," he tells RFE/RL. "I was traveling and my friend was sitting with me. When I submitted my assignment, after some time he asked me a question, 'What are you doing?' So I told him the whole story, that I am taking a course from the U.S.A. He was so surprised and shocked."
The experience -- something Raza says he never thought would be possible -- doesn't cost him a single rupee. All he needed was the interest and an Internet connection to reserve his seat in a virtual MIT classroom.
Raza is one of the several million learners worldwide to have discovered "massive open online courses," or MOOCs. While a number of universities attempted to introduce free online courses in the early 2000s, MOOCs have only begun to catch fire in the last year. Today, the silly-sounding acronym has become a buzz word, and is one of the hottest topics in education.
'Biggest Thing Since The Printing Press'
A group of U.S. education technology startups, in partnership with dozens of top U.S. universities, now offers MOOCs on everything from poetry to physics. Course platforms feature lecture videos, other multimedia content, embedded quizzes, discussion boards, and online study groups. Essays and other projects less suited to automated grading are reviewed by classmates based on rubrics. Interaction with professors and teaching assistants is rare. Completing a course earns you a certificate, and several U.S. schools have begun to accept MOOCs for credit.
The startups' founders say their goals are at once practical and humanistic -- an effort to overcome rising education costs and a shortage of resources and make top-quality learning accessible to the masses.
Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor, is the president of edX, a nonprofit collaboration between his university and Harvard University that currently offers more than 60 MOOCs.
He believes his and similar projects are nothing short of transformative.
"I think education is not going to be the same ever again," Agarwal says. "I really describe this technology and MOOCs as the biggest revolution in education since the printing press -- and that happened 500 years ago."
Other, more impartial observers have high hopes for MOOCS, too.
But given their novelty, some assessments are more cautious. Critics point to the courses' high dropout rates, the lack of face-to-face interaction, and the risk that the for-profit companies offering MOOCs may one day begin charging students if they fail to secure other revenue sources.
One company, Coursera, has attracted over $20 million in venture capital. It currently makes much of its money by licensing course content to universities. It also gives students the option to pay for perks including electronically verified course certificates and electronic course records to send to employers or schools.
One thing that no one doubts is that MOOCs are gaining in popularity -- and fast.
Agarwal says that after just a year, edX is approaching 1 million learners from 192 countries. In the same time span, Coursera has attracted more than 3 million students.
Agarwal boldly predicts that over the next decade or so his initiative will attract 1 billion international learners.
But he concedes that subjects such as politics, history, and philosophy, provided by generally liberal, Western institutions, could cause problems if MOOCs gain such reach.
"I expect that challenges will continue as what might be considered gainful education in one part of the world might be considered disruptive in a different part of the world," Agarwal says. "We haven't had examples of nations or others blocking edX content itself, but some of the infrastructure over which our content is distributed are not accessible all over the world. YouTube was blocked in some nations, for example in Pakistan and China, and we distribute video over YouTube. So there, what we did was we made the video available for download on our site so students could have an alternate way [to watch]."
Another issue to confront is language, as almost all MOOCs are currently in English.
Coursera has taken the lead in responding. The company announced in May that it was partnering with several organizations, including the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation in Ukraine, to provide subtitling for lectures in select courses in Arabic, Japanese, Kazakh, Portuguese, Russian, and Ukrainian.
A Coursera spokesperson told RFE/RL that the languages "reflect those spoken by the student population."
"Additionally, regional growth in Russia and Eastern European countries has increased by 230 percent in the last six months," the spokesperson said.
Aleksei Gryatskikh, 32, is a new-media manager living near Moscow. He has taken several MOOCs through Coursera, which he says have helped him professionally.
"The gamification course essentially systematized all the knowledge I accumulated before in my previous work as the creative director at an advertisement agency," Gryatskikh says. "But even though I already possessed the knowledge, the lectures helped me systematize it. Without that it might have been challenging to apply that knowledge in real life."
"There's no way that this doesn't have huge potential," he adds.