"Some may ask why we're giving courses away, but this is not about giving courses away," DeMillo said. "It's about enabling different learning for different students."
With the number of courses Coursera offers expected to more than double by fall, millions of students may get online access to classes offered by top colleges at no charge. Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson said the exposure, which comes in addition to other online learning programs the institution offers, "will enable even more students throughout the world to have access to Georgia Tech's expertise, and help to meet the needs for lifelong learning."
Coursera is part of the growing market of "massive open online courses" also known as MOOCs. Thousands of students at various ages, locations and income levels can gain knowledge and acquire skills without paying tuition or earning a degree.
The idea is part of a series of higher-education experiments as colleges test what services they can provide through advanced technology and improved efficiency. It comes as many question the cost of higher education and students are demanding more control over what they study and how they learn.
Georgia Tech is one of 12 colleges from around the world joining the company. Other new members include Duke University, California Institute of Technology and the University of Toronto.
Other colleges, such as MIT and Harvard University, have similar operations.
DeMillo didn't know how many students would sign up, but predicted it will be in the thousands.
"It would take us 10 years to reach thousands of students with Georgia Tech courses on campus," he said.
The courses differ from the video lectures already accessed for free online. Students will participate in discussions, take quizzes and learn through forums with other students. Students can learn at their own pace and take as much — or as little — time as needed to master the content, according to Coursera.
Students will be able to ask questions about the material. Many will be answered through FAQs online, DeMillo said. Teaching assistants and others with more experience around the material will answer the rest.
Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng described the company as the "future of higher education," adding that "professors can reach more students in one course than they could have hoped to in a lifetime."
Learn for free
Georgia Tech has joined Coursera (www.coursera.org), one of several companies that allows students from all over the world to take online courses from premiere colleges for free. Here are the members of Coursera, as announced Tuesday:
California Institute of Technology
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (Switzerland)
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
University of California, San Francisco
University of Edinburgh (Scotland)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Michigan*
University of Pennsylvania*
University of Toronto (Canada)
University of Virginia
University of Washington
NOTE: * Denotes colleges that participated prior to Tuesday's announcement