Five prestigious U.S. universities will create free online courses for students worldwide through a new, interactive education platform dubbed Coursera, founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng announced recently. Coursera will offer more than three dozen college courses in the coming year on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to neurology, from calculus to contemporary American poetry. The classes are designed and taught by professors at Stanford, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.


Coursera joins a raft of ambitious online projects aimed at making higher education more accessible and affordable. Many of these ventures, however, simply post entire lectures on the Web with no interactive component. Others strive to create brand-new universities.


The founders say Coursera will be different because professors from top schools will teach under their university's name and will adapt their most popular courses for the Web, embedding assignments and exams into video lectures, answering questions from students on online forums -- even, perhaps, hosting office hours via video conference.


Students will not get college credit. But Coursera may offer certificates of completion or transcripts for a fee. The company may also seek to turn a profit by connecting employers with students who have shown aptitude in a particular field, a spokeswoman said.


For their part, participating universities expect to benefit by boosting their reputations overseas, connecting with far-flung alumni and bringing in donations from grateful online students. "It will increase our impact on the world," said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.


Trial and error

In trial classes Coursera hosted this year, the production values were a bit rough.

Scott Page, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, filmed his lectures for a class called Model Thinking. Interruptions forced him to reshoot several segments -- and as a result, he looks undeniably grumpy in some takes. A few of his online quizzes contain errors. His slides are sometimes hard to read. From time to time, his dog wanders into the frame.

Yet 30,000 people from around the globe stuck with the class -- doing the homework, watching the lectures and chatting with one another in lively discussion forums.