IT IS known as MOOC — or massive open online course — and it is changing, or rather disrupting the existing higher education model around the globe.Thanks to dramatic improvements in technology in recent years, digital education threatens the very existence of university education — with their classrooms, expensive text books, high course fees and an acute shortage of faculty.University education has become prohibitive the world over. In India, prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have had to go in for steep hikes in their fees in recent years. In the US, the snowballing student debt crisis (where total outstanding education loans crossed the $1 trillion mark last year) could overshadow the mortgage crisis, which triggered the global economic meltdown.Says Tarun Mitra, CEO and managing director, LurnQ.com, and a pioneer in India in the area of technology and education: “Valued at $60 billion, the e-learning market in India is largely unpenetrated. While the past decade has seen an exponential increase in the availability of free resources for teaching, learning and research, vast amounts of untapped knowledge remain inaccessible.”LurnQ.com has positioned itself as an entity that offers personalised services for individuals and companies wanting to get specific courses tailor-made for their needs. “Today, we are being overwhelmed by the net, thanks to the proliferation of services. We will cut out the noise and deliver what is relevant to an individual or a company. Of course, our services will be free for the average user, but like LinkedIn and other such firms, we will charge for premium services.”Mitra points out that e-learning is gradually being replaced by digital or online learning. “Digital learning will be the core part of any learning process. Today, education can go entirely digital as people have broadband access everywhere.”Many teenagers in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are today completely clued into digital technology. A 15-year-old — a typical digital native — for instance, has never seen anything other than digital music, or communicated in any other way except through Facebook. Most youngsters would never have entered a brick-and-mortar bank, doing all their transactions on their smart phones.Thus, an increasing number of young urban Indians is now accessing higher education through MOOC. Citing a technology review report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mitra points out that India comes third in a ranking of people accessing free online college courses (after the US and Brazil).In 2012, new ‘universities’ — or companies — offering higher education sprouted up in the United States and they have enrolled more students than the Ivy League universities. According to the MIT Technology Review, MOOC sign-ups exceeded 70,000 new students a week, “the equivalent of four or five Stanfords”, it says. Names such as Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company partnering top universities including Stanford, Columbia, Duke, Brown, Johns Hopkins and several other prestigious institutions, reported 1.5 million sign-ups as on October 2012.“Today, Coursera has three million global users and it has tied up with 33 leading universities around the globe,” points out Mitra. There are several others that have cropped up in recent times including EdX and Udacity, which are now threatening to disrupt the existing higher education model.A Harvard University researcher has predicted that in about 20 years, there would be just 10 universities globally that would survive this cataclysmic shake-out in higher education.But how are these new academic ‘institutions’ going to raise funds to ensure continuity in education? Mitra says that these new companies — many promoted by existing universities — are committed to provide free education; however, they will charge students who want to earn credits, or for contact hours with teachers.And venture capital funds are investing in these companies, confident that they will be able to monetise on the numbers. For instance, while each of the 200 students attending Harvard University now pays about $20,000 a year as tuition fees, the online course being offered by it has about a million students. Even if 100,000 of them were to pay $200 a year for certification, the university would earn far more than its traditional income.