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The cost of college is soaring with no end in sight, and a four-year degree at a traditional college easily can run to more than $200,000. But if you are willing to forgo the brick-and-mortar classrooms, dorms and football team, it might be possible to save tens of thousands of dollars by getting a degree online.

Until recently, online degrees were hardly worth the paper it took to print them out, but all that could be changing with the advent of massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Taking classes online isn't new. But MOOCs aren't just any online classes. The big difference is scale: MOOC technology platforms allow as many as tens of thousands of students to log on and watch live instructors or on-demand webinars. Like the real deal, college-based MOOCs also have homework and proctored exams, some that require students to go to a specific location to take a test.

Since MOOCs burst onto the scene in summer 2012, many colleges and universities have been racing to get onboard, partnering with Internet startups to offer courses that are open to all for free on a noncredit basis. Some MOOCs have enrolled more than 100,000 online learners, and schools are beginning to offer them for credit to enrolled or prospective students.

A handful of institutions have taken it a step further by offering MOOC-based degrees. Last month, the Georgia Institute of Technology announced it will offer a MOOC-based master's degree in computer science beginning in January 2014 at a fraction of the on-campus cost. Mount Washington College, a for-profit New Hampshire college owned by Kaplan, offers a handful of online bachelor's degree programs that the school says students could complete for as little as $19,200.

Other traditional and for-profit schools are following suit, a development that could help college students and their families save thousands in tuition and other expenses associated with a traditional college education.

President Barack Obama even mentioned MOOCs as an economical alternative for nontraditional students in an August speech touting his plan for reforming American colleges to encourage lower tuition and increased access.

Taking MOOCs for credit

The American Council on Education recently approved a handful of MOOC courses for degree credits, meaning they can be counted toward degrees at any of the council's 1,800 member schools -- if the college or university accepts it, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Colleges offer ACE-approved MOOCs through educational technology startups including Coursera, Udacity and edX.

Udacity, for example, offers five courses from San Jose State University, including introductory classes in psychology, programming, statistics and math. Classes cost $150 each and are online only, with online proctored exams, and access to instructors for help.

Coursera offers for-credit classes from Duke University, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania.

"What's interesting about MOOCs is it's showing us education has the potential of scaling up much larger than in the past as long as we can maintain that quality," says Cathy Sandeen, ACE's vice president for education attainment and innovation, in a video. "We're seeing a lot of innovation in terms of techniques, technologies, teaching methods -- a combination of all of those things."

Hoopla aside, it's still too early to predict how popular for-credit MOOCs will be. People who've taken MOOC courses for work or enrichment say they love the convenience.

So far, though, attrition rates for the courses have been high -- only 10% finish, according to an Associated Press report.

At least one early for-credit offering has been a bust. Colorado State University-Global made a splash last year when it became the first U.S. college to offer credit to students who passed a MOOC. But a year later, not a single student had signed up for the computer science course, which was offered for a fee of $89, just a fraction of the $1,050 the college typically charges for a three-credit class, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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One school that's opting out of MOOCs is Colorado College, a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs with approximately 2,000 undergrads, which plans to add more in-person classes to its unique block program, where students take a single class at a time. "Our strategy is countercultural," college president Jill Tiefenthaler said in a release. "Instead of jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, we aim to be SSIP (Selective, Small, Immersive and Personal). And yes, we just made that up."

Here are a few resources for finding out more about MOOCs:

MOOC List - This website catalogs online courses in multiple languages from colleges and universities around the world.

MOOC News and Reviews - A college writing teacher and MOOC consultant runs this blog that tracks developers in the education technology world.

Educause - The technology training organization maintains a MOOC resource library with links to related events, articles and websites that offer MOOC classes.

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