Imagine obtaining a college degree from the comfort of your own home, using your own computer or laptop -- without having to actually enroll in the institution that offers the courses. Not only would you be learning from the best minds from schools like Yale and MIT, but the coursework would be offered at minimal cost, or no charge at all.

As college attendees continue to rack up record levels of student loan debt, any innovation that promises to cut college costs is welcome. Thanks to the increasing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, which offer global audiences course lectures and assignments over the Internet, the above scenario is moving closer to reality.

The evolution of online courses
Online courses are not new, but the idea of MOOCs has only been around for a couple of years. It may seem like the two types of courses would be very similar, but they actually differ quite a lot.

While online courses usually are a dedicated offering at a particular college or university, MOOCs are available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. As for affordability, online courses at a given school may not be much cheaper than traditional classroom offerings -- because of the need to train faculty, as well as develop the courses themselves. MOOCs, for the most part, cost nothing.

MOOCs are not perfect. Most, for example, are not being offered for credit, which means getting a degree from the experience is nearly impossible. The dropout rate is extremely high, as well; experts estimate that up to 90% of those that sign up for these courses never complete them.

Things are changing -- fast
But MOOCs are quickly becoming the next big thing in higher education, and colleges and universities are jumping on the bandwagon. This semester, Georgetown University is offering a seven-week MOOC that has attracted 20,000 enrollees from all over the world. The University of Wisconsin at Madison rolled out its own MOOC this October, which consists of four pilot courses, with an enrollment of 80,000.

With MOOCs getting a lot more attention, the idea of treating them more as for-credit, matriculating courses is catching on. The University of Maryland is now taking a look at bestowing transfer credit to those who are able to demonstrate a specific level of knowledge after completing a MOOC.

The Georgia Institute of Technology has taken the MOOC concept to the ultimate level, opening the application process earlier this month for the first-ever degree program delivered through the MOOC platform. The Master of Science in Computer Science will be offered for a cost of less than $7,000 -- an absolute bargain, especially when compared to the traditional on-campus price of $45,000.

An education-industry partnership
The speed with which MOOCs are taking off and becoming a true alternative to an on-site college education may be due to the involvement of big business. The Georgia Tech program involves communications giant AT&T, which plans to utilize the program for employee training. The platform is being provided by Udacity, an online education provider, which will share in the MOOC's profits.

Meanwhile, Google has taken an interest in the technology, as well. The company has partnered with university coalition edX in order to create a massive open-source educational platform. The new project, dubbed Open edX, will provide a means for anyone to create and host online courses.

Whether MOOCs become an integral part of higher education remains to be seen, and much will depend upon the success of Georgia Tech's new offering. If the degree program performs well, the model will likely be duplicated very quickly -- good news for students, who will stand a better chance of beginning their working lives free of crippling student loan debt.

Fool contributor Amanda Alix has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.