The digital realm has come to encompass everything we know, and now it’s beginning to redefine our system of higher education.

Thanks to the work of Massive Open Online Courses, anyone with internet connection can enroll in free online classes on subjects ranging from American government and Civil War Reconstruction to artificial intelligence and robotics.

And that doesn’t mean sitting through a lesson from an uncredentialed stranger lecturing out of his mother’s basement.

At EdX, a nonprofit MOOC provider run by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, users can choose from more than 1,300 courses taught by distinguished university professors at top-tier colleges. There are no admissions processes or enrollment fees; there’s no need to even leave your bed.

It’s a revolutionary approach to the traditional college experience, explains EdX CEO, Anant Agarwal. Rather than sitting in a classroom, students follow the virtual lesson plan by watching short videos given by the professor, and then taking quizzes on the material.  

And they’re not only lecture-style videos. “Say you’re taking a course on supply-chain management,” he says. “The professor might take you on location and do interviews with teachers in the field or have you actually watch some demonstrations.

“In some cases, it’s almost like watching reality TV.”

Payment is factored in only if students want to pursue a verified certificate of completion after passing the course. It’s an entirely different model founded on the idea: You pay if you pass.

“In our current system, you pay up front, and if you fail, tough luck,” he says.

“Here you can learn for free; if you want a credential, you pay $50, and then if you want the credit to transfer onto your transcript, you pay around $600, which is about half the price of state tuition.”

As the trend toward online education continues to gain momentum, the standard four-year degree might soon be a thing of the past.

Agarwal proposes a foreseeable alternative: Students would spend their first year taking classes online, the following two years attending a physical college for the experience, and their final year finishing their degree while also stacking up online credentials.

Of course, these online courses are beneficial not only to those attending college. For high school students, he says, the courses may offer a chance for them dip their toes in the water and test out different subjects before deciding on a major.

And for people in between — those with a career or in the process of looking for a job — there’s always the option of a "micromasters" degree.

“In my vision of the future, people will be what I call continuous learners, going through life and collecting microcredentials along the way,” Agarwal says.