Over the last year, elite American universities have raced to stake out a place in the new world of free online courses -- and now, universities around the globe are following suit.
This week, the two largest ventures providing what are known as MOOCs -- massive open online courses -- are announcing new partnerships with leading universities in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China, Singapore, Japan and Australia, and signing additional American universities.
Coursera, founded by two Stanford University computer professors, is adding 29 universities -- including École Polytechnique in France, the National University of Singapore, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and National Autonomous University of Mexico -- to its current 33 partners.
Meanwhile, edX, a nonprofit venture started by Harvard and M.I.T., is doubling its university partners to 12, adding Rice University, the Australian National University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and, in Canada, McGill and the University of Toronto.
"We have had an international student community from the very beginning, and bringing these leading universities, from North America and Europe and the Asia Pacific, into the edX organization will help us meet the tremendous demand we are experiencing," said Anant Agarwal, the president of edX.
The rush into a still-experimental field comes as no surprise to William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton and founding chairman of Ithaka, a nonprofit concerned with education and information technology.
"One of the characteristics of academia is that nobody wants to be left behind," he said. "There's great promise here, great potential, but we need more careful research, and there has not been sufficient attention to that, partly because a lot of the people creating these courses are missionaries, and missionaries are not by and large interested in testing their message."
Coursera, which has attracted 2.7 million students to its 222 courses since it was started last spring, has recently had growing pains. This month, its course Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Applications, offered by the Georgia Institute of Technology, was suspended because of technical glitches. And last weekend, one month into his Microeconomics for Managers course, Richard B. McKenzie, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Irvine, quit, telling students that "because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I've agreed to disengage from it, with regret." The course is continuing, with his materials.
Among Coursera's new partners are a Spanish business school, several United States public universities, including the University of California campuses in San Diego and Santa Cruz, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the California Institute of the Arts.
With the array of international partners, Coursera will offer courses in Spanish, Chinese, French and Italian.
"We are equally excited about the prospects of bringing higher education to places where access is limited, and of giving established educational institutions opportunities to raise their impact both on and off campus," said Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, in a statement.
Both Coursera and edX are moving to help students earn college credit for their free online courses, for a fee, using identity-verified certificates, proctored exams and the American Council on Education's recommendations, which many universities consider for transfer credit.
EdX, which began with a single M.I.T. electrical engineering course taught by Dr. Agarwal, now offers about two dozen courses, a roster that will grow to 50 to 100 next fall.
EdX expects to serve a billion students worldwide over the next decade on its open-source educational platform, Dr. Agarwal said. About 700,000 individuals are using the platform now, he said, with more than 900,000 course enrollments.
As important as providing free access to students worldwide, Dr. Agarwal said, is edX's goal of using the platform for research on how students learn, and better on-campus pedagogy.
So far, most MOOCs have had dropout rates exceeding 90 percent.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.