I am just finishing up today my course work for Andrew Ng's excellent Coursera course in Machine Learning. I am also taking two other classes that I will complete in about a month: Martin Odersky's Functional Programming with Scala class and Geoffrey Hinton's Neural Networks for Machine Learning. Previously this year I also took Natural Language Processing and Software Engineering for SaaS. I have taken the first two or three weeks of several other classes just to get a general feel for their subjects.
This morning in one of the last lectures in Andrew Ng's class he showed a precise algorithm for a problem that a customer (a media company in China) and I tried to solve about 7 years ago. We were successful enough to meet my customer's requirements but the next time I see a problem like that (involving collaborative filtering) I will nail the implementation. Every class that I have taken this year has provided many new insights, often on subjects that I thought that I was already a familiar with because of work experience.
I like to look past the enormous benefit for myself from very high quality free online classes, and consider the enormous benefits to the world in general. Just taking Andrew's class as an example, ten years ago there were perhaps a few thousands of people in the world who understood how to do machine learning and understood the craft of using the right methods for specific problems. In five years there might be close to a million people who have taken Andrew's class. This will affect productivity, world wide, and this example is just one class in one online university. Scale this to dozens of online universities with many thousands of classes in technology, health care, etc.
I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that high quality online education will revolutionize the lives of knowledge workers and potentially help bring about revolutionary changes in the world economy.