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The Digital Skeptic: Online Education Cuts Value of Higher Ed in Half

Tickers in this article: APOL WPO

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's almost June. Time for dads, grads and counting the living from the dead in the collapsing U.S. higher education market.

Because if my month of learning collegiate-level data science via no-cost Mountain View, Calif.-based online course provider Coursera is any indication, it's time for parents, educators, employers, students, investors -- not to mention college real estate speculators -- to learn how ugly it's going to get to charge a lot to learn a lot.

Investors know this lesson well. Just like in the music, financial services and corporate IT sectors, high-quality, first-rate content -- in this case, a job-fetching higher education -- is absolutely, positively available for nothing.

"When I have heard about your site and the courses you offer," posted Paolo Scolamacchia, a Milan, Italy, computer specialist and one of my roughly 65,000 Coursera no-cost data science classmates. "I was very surprised and excited to join them."

What's remarkable about learning intricate and complex topics such as MapReduce and SQLite with nothing more than a PC is not that automated grading tools work. Or that online social schooling really does replace much of what traditional teachers do. Or that the same gut-wrenching collapse felt by giants including Warner Music Group, the New York Stock Exchange or Hewlett-Packard await the giants of higher education.

What's stunning is how ordered, well understood and -- let's be honest -- mundane the process of digital devaluation will be.

A phat, free online higher ed market
Absolutely positively, free online higher education is on the by-now classic explosive Web trajectory of dazzling growth. Geez, Coursera has meetups in 1,646 cities; content from 62 universities including Yale; and investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Heck, its teachers will have bigger followings than rock stars.

That means some sort of significant financial event is a certainty. Harvard and MIT's joint online ed effort edX or my sleeper pick, the private Khan Academy, are also in this group. But Coursera is at the head of the class. It is already a popular play on private exchanges such as SecondMarket.

Remember, this is the Web. Coursera will be as profit-challenged as Facebook , Amazon or any other Internet company. But for the lucky few close to this investment, some sort of lucrative funding event -- maybe even an IPO -- will graduate to the market say, by midyear 2014.