All those technologies had some effect. But traditional universities are still around, and still dominant. Technology didn't solve the scale problem: One teacher can lecture millions of students online. But truly "teach" them, with personal feedback and interaction?
"There's an endless faith in education in technology," says John Meyer, a Stanford University sociologist of education, and skeptic of the latest trends. "Right now, there's a kind of binge of belief that the Internet will solve the problem."
But the arrival of MOOCs, barely a year old, has many believing this time is different.
At his desk at a telecom company in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, Ugochukwu Nehemiah used to take his full one-hour lunch break. Now, he quickly devours his meal, then watches his downloaded MOOCs. He's finished three so far, with two more under way — courses in electronics, business and disruptive innovation, taught by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.
Nehemiah needs a master's to advance at work, but cannot afford the program in England where he's been admitted. The MOOC learning doesn't translate into a widely recognized credential, but he cannot get such teaching locally, and it's helpful regardless.
"It's a form of self-development," says Nehemiah, a father of two. "The way I would speak when I have meetings to attend," he adds, "would be much different than the way I had spoken if I had not taken this course."
Some MOOCs are only a modest step-up from glorified lecture videos. But the star power of famous professors has helped make them hugely popular.
When non-profit edX offered its first MOOC in "Circuits and Electronics" last spring, 154,000 students signed up — more than have graduated from MIT in its 150-year history (though only 7,000 lasted and passed the final). Now edX has 900,000 students and more than 30 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has ramped up to 3.5 million students, 370 courses and 69 partner institutions.
The MOOCs, though, are just one part of this new landscape.
Sal Khan, a charismatic former hedge-fund adviser, discovered his knack for explaining things while tutoring his young cousins in algebra in 2004. In 2006, he uploaded his first YouTube video and, two years later, founded Khan Academy.
Today, Khan, who is based in Mountain View, Calif., has more students than all the MOOCs combined: Six million unique users a month from 216 countries watch one or more of the 4,000-plus videos available on Khan Academy's website. These are not full courses, but connected series of free, bite-sized lessons — about 10 minutes each — taught by Khan and others in everything from math to art history.
You can watch in 28 languages, from Spanish to Farsi, Bengali and Portuguese.
The appeal of such technologies is obvious: getting great teachers in front of more — millions more — students. But Khan also talks extensively about shaking up education across a different dimension — not just geography, but time. Khan students can learn what they need, when they need it, without having to take and pay for an entire course.
"Whether we're talking basic literacy or quantum physics," Khan says, "it's the ability to cater to one person's needs."
Here's the centuries-old concept of time in traditional universities: Yoke together students of differing abilities, sit them in lecture halls, teach them at the same speed. After 12 or 15 weeks, whether they pass with an A or a D-minus, give them equal credit. Take a break, and then repeat.
"We've organized higher education into this factory model where we bring a group of students in post-high school and march them through more or less in lock-step," says Demillo, the Georgia Tech professor and author of "Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities." "People that don't conform are rejected from the factory and people that make it through are stamped with a degree."
Researchers have long understood students generally do better with customized speed and regular assessment, but simple economics made such individualized learning unrealistic.