But others warn that MOOCs have the potential to undermine the finances of colleges and universities — much like how free Web content has upended newspapers, magazines and other media industries.
If students can get high-quality academic material for free, colleges and universities will be pressed to demonstrate the education value they offer beyond lectures and exams.
"I don't think you can just dismiss this," Tierney said. "People think that what happened to the newspaper industry is not going to happen to academia."
Once up and running, most courses can almost run by themselves. They typically feature short video lectures followed by quizzes that test students on the concepts they just learned. Most math and science exams can graded by computer, while students in humanities courses evaluate each other's writing assignments.
The courses run on set schedules ranging from several weeks to several months, so that students can form discussion groups and help each other with homework assignments.
"There was a tremendously vibrant online community of fellow students," said George Skelly, a Boston attorney who took the MIT electronics class this spring. "It was as if I had a thousand teaching assistants available to me instantaneously."
This year several competing online platforms have emerged and attracted elite universities eager to develop their digital learning programs.
Coursera was founded by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, two Stanford professors who started the platform after they taught an online computer science course that attracted more than 100,000 students last fall.
This fall Coursera will offer 116 courses from 16 universities in disciplines such as medicine, philosophy and artificial intelligence. So far about 900,000 students have enrolled.
The Mountain View-based startup has raised $16 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firms as well as $3.7 million from the California Institute of Technology and University of Pennsylvania.
While Coursera is a for-profit venture, the company remains committed to keeping the courses free, Ng said.
"If a poor kid in India cannot take the class, I think that would just be a tragedy," Ng said. "If a place like Princeton could teach millions of students, I think the world would be a better place."
Coursera is exploring ways to generate revenue, including charging students for certificates and charging employers who want to identify top students.
Faced with a shortage of engineering talent, many tech companies have already asked for introductions to students who successfully completed his online course, Ng said. Some students told him they landed new jobs after showing employers their Coursera certificates.
The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer five Coursera courses this fall, said Richard DeMillo, a computer science professor who heads the Center for 21st Century Universities.
"We're in the middle of a potentially groundbreaking experiment," DeMillo said. "Really big things could come out of it."
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