Here at Hendrix, we just finished preregistration for the 2013-14 academic year. I want to reflect a bit on how the system is not designed to put the needs of the students first.
More often than not, only one section is offered of any given course in any given academic year. It often happens that there is a time conflict with another course. Widespread frustration with this phenomenon is given voice in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, when Hermione uses a "Time-Turner" to enable her to solve this problem. Alas, time-turners are pure fantasy, and thus if a student wants to take two concurrent courses, the attitude of the institution is to say, "I don't care that you're interested in both things. This semester, you may only study one of them."
Even if the student is fortunate enough to avoid this problem, there is also the problem of class limits. The institution can only handle a certain number of students in a course. There is often a good reason for this. Nevertheless, the institution says to the ejected student, "Tough luck. I don't care that you are interested. You just don't fit." I don't mean to minimize the efforts that an institution will undertake to address this; often, new adjuncts are hired and new sections opened for just this reason. Nevertheless, the institution reserves the right to say "No" to a student.
Contrast this attitude with the attitude of a MOOC. Sign up whenever you want for whatever you want. The field is open. If you are curious, we will help you feed your curiosity. Of course, Coursera, with its own time-limited courses, does not take this advantage as seriously as Udacity does. I am intrigued at how strong my negative feelings are towards Coursera on precisely this point.
I don't want to pretend that there is a straightforward means for a brick-and-mortar institution to emulate this possibility. But as a department chair who just had to evict at least two dozen students from courses they wanted to take, I can't shake the feeling that the MOOC world may be sincerely trying harder to serve students than we are.