A few years ago now, MIT started putting its teaching materials online. What appeared ranged from hand-written notes and diagrams, presumably scanned in, through Powerpoint slides, to detailed and beautifully presented lecture notes. The material covered virtually all subjects taught at MIT. In one sense one could see all this as a marketing exercise, allowing MIT to show off the sheer quality and diversity of what it taught, and I imagine this would have helped both student recruitment and faculty recruitment.
At the same time it was the start of a novel approach to student learning. Students (or anyone, in fact) could download what they wanted, study it at leisure, and then move on to some other topic, or the same subject at a higher level, or whatever. Of course, without actually registering at MIT, and paying a fee, these students could not have their work assessed, they were unable to get any form of certificate showing they had followed a particular course and passed it, and they were unable to graduate with a degree. For some folk, just wanting to dip into a subject or update existing qualifications, this wouldn't matter at all; for others, really wanting and needing some paper qualifications, it would matter a great deal. Perhaps getting a taster of MIT's material will have encouraged quite a few people to take up serious studies, either at their local college or university, or even, in some cases, at MIT itself - if they could get through the highly competitive selection process for admission there.
More recently, other universities have been getting in on this act. Thus Stanford, in partnership with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Princeton and UC Berkeley, has established a business, Coursera, through which diverse courses are already offered for free. This business has been started with the help of some venture capital, though as yet it is not wholly clear how revenues will be generated - but I imagine students will need to register and pay a fee to get credits for the courses they have completed.
These amazing developments - that would have seemed like science fiction only a decade ago - seem to offer the possibility of wholly new ways of thinking about higher education, and getting a degree. For instance, suppose a student pays fees to various online providers to gain credits for particular courses, then decides to complete his/her degree by registering for a final year at a suitable institution operating in the traditional manner, and completes successfully. Overall, the student will have done enough for a degree, but whose degree will it be - the institution where he/she spent the final year? For a model like this to work, the credit transfer system would obviously have to be pretty flexible, and I suppose there would have to be some means of monitoring the quality of the various courses - unless we relied on a highly uncertain mix of 'the market' and reputation to do that job for us.
And what about the implications of these developments for conventional bricks and mortar universities? Well, I'm sure some will survive, whatever happens, rather in the way that diverse handicrafts survive and even prosper in a largely mass production economy. Academics might find their jobs changing, with some writing course material for online providers (for a suitable fee, naturally), doing some research from home (perfectly feasible for many, especially in the arts and social sciences), and giving tutorials and advice sessions from home using Skype and the like. This sort of diverse and highly decentralised way of working is becoming increasingly possible - and therefore, I suspect, likely. With change along these lines, in another 10 or 20 years perhaps not many of us will still need our University offices........