Eighteen-year-olds these days will tell you they actually prefer to text each other than talk on the phone or meet for coffee, said Daphne Koller, Stanford University professor of engineering.
For such digital natives, serious learning online can be more natural and effective than older folks, steeped in traditional notions, may fully grasp.
Koller, along with Associate Professor of Computer Science Andrew Ng, this year launched Coursera, which aims to offer the best courses from the best universities for free to anyone in the world who wants it.
So far -- even without any clear revenue model -- 33 U.S. and overseas universities have signed up, with some 200 course offerings.
"That notion of 'rubbing minds' should not be something that we presume, because of the way we were brought up, can only happen in face-to-face situations," Koller said.
The latest push in online learning differs from earlier ones, she said, because advances in social media and interactivity mean it's a completely new paradigm -- not just an effort to replicate classroom instruction on the web.
Students in a class can connect with each other physically, by forming geographically based study groups, or virtually by posing questions to the group online. Even if a question is posed at 3 a.m., massive enrollments mean that someone somewhere is likely to be awake and working on the same question.
Median response time to questions posed to class groups was recently measured at 22 minutes -- "not the level of service I've ever offered to my Stanford students," Koller said in a June talk.
For faculty, online teaching enables a better understanding of exactly where students are struggling -- and the ability to provide targeted assistance -- through the use of computer analysis of student keystrokes, she said.
As for grading, machines are sophisticated enough to measure mastery of things like mathematical expressions and derivations, financial models and programming assignments.
For the critical thinking work needed in the humanities and social sciences, peer grading has shown promise -- and is being used in Coursera.
Finally, students completing a class can get a certificate, which they can present to educational institutions for possible credit, or to employers for a better job.
Koller admits online learning may never replace the intimacy of a 10-person, face-to-face seminar with a top professor.
But it could be a vastly superior experience for the millions of students currently sitting passively in large lecture halls, she argued.
"They'd get a lot more interaction with both the material and with their fellow students by being in this online system, where they're interacting with each other on a constant basis" she said.
Online education also holds promise for places like community colleges, where hundreds of thousands of students get put on waiting lists for core classes.
It also could be an efficient remedy for the resources currently allocated to remedial education for college students in core subjects like math and English.
If students could enter college with these courses already under their belts through online learning, "it would be a huge win in increasing completion rates."
The "new paradigm" of online education is still in its infancy and will get more technically sophisticated with time, she said.
Koller is little troubled by the high attrition rates in massive online courses.
"The ones who intend to audit the class -- they're just there to watch the videos -- I think that's just fine," she said.
For people who indicate they do intend to take the class by virtue of submitting the first assignment, retention is 20 to 40 percent -- better than retention rates in many for-profit institutions where students have paid to attend, she said.
"I think the dropout rate is not a bad thing because it allows people risk-free exploration," she said.
"People say, 'That sounds cool' and they enroll and it doesn't cost anything. They try it for a week and then they say, 'This is harder than I thought,' or 'This is easier than I thought,' or 'This actually involves math.'
"That's for the best because they've been able to identify both their interest and their level of readiness."