According to Professor Daphne Koller, co-founder of global MOOC provider Coursera, leading universities will offer fully accredited undergraduate degrees online within five years.

Talking about the future of online education, Koller said that the required technology was available but that universities have been hesitant due to how moving from a traditional brick and mortar model could affect their repuation.

The news comes at the same time that Imperial College London has announced it is teaming up with edX, one of Coursera’s competitors, to provide MOOCs as tasters for students who are considering committing to an MBA degree at the university’s business school.

As reported by the BBC, online courses have mostly offered certificates for short courses rather than full degrees. However, the partnership between edX and Imperial lends weight to Koller’s suggestion that fully accredited degrees will soon be available online.

An edX blog detailing the partnership explained that the series of courses, titled “Essentials for MBA Success,” has “been developed to provide learners with the knowledge necessary to prepare for pursuing an MBA.” The courses will cover math, finance, data analysis and accounting.

During the new initiative’s unveiling, Dr. David Lefevre, Director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School, highlighted the London institution’s awareness that online learning is an emerging avenue for university learning in the future:

“Imperial College Business School keenly recognises the growing need for flexible learning programmes that cater for people’s busy lifestyles.”

Though recent research suggests that students who take courses in massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, have extremely low completion rates, the research may not tell the full story. One problem with the research, cited by MIT physicist David Pritchard, was that the figures included students who had undertaken a small number of lessons free of charge as a taster. Even so, they were recorded as students who had simply dropped out.

Online education is still very much in its infancy, though technological advancements can move at dizzying speeds. Prof Koller, speaking at an educational technology conference in London, said the next step for online learning — one which she envisions in the very near future — is for universities to offer mainstream undergraduate courses online with invigilated exams and full degrees.

During her speech, Prof Koller said that these changes are coming soon:

“I’m absolutely convinced that will happen – and it will be a lot earlier than 10 years. The societal need is there. A full-blown undergraduate degree – I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen within five years.”

Prof Koller said that the technology exists, as is the need for wider-reaching education, however, universities have been put off by a need for “protection of the brand,” as well as not wanting to be seen as moving away from personal tuition. She added that this was a perception that must be broken and that “it’s not the technology that’s been the barrier.”

Koller also suggested that the reticence of many universities to explore MOOCs was based on an idealised and largely false perception of university life. She said that most students are not “walking on lawns next to ivy-clad buildings,” whilst adding:

“It’s a false comparison to think it’s either anonymous online teaching or else a cosy armchair and individual tutors. When you have a lecture hall with 300 people, you’re not getting personal interaction.”

Prof Koller also cited the online courses’ flexibility, stating that they could be used to help provide higher education to the less privileged, including Syrian refugees.

Coursera was founded in California four years ago and is one of the world’s largest MOOC providers. The online platform is home to 20 million students who are taking courses from roughly 140 prestigious universities and institutions worldwide.