But it also serves as a recruiting tool for schools, as their best teaching is showcased internationally.
"There are so many people around the world in need of high-quality education and really starving for education," said Daphne Koller, one of the Coursera cofounders.
Students don't get course credit toward a degree; it's the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake, although the company is exploring the possibility of offering completion certificates.
Yale and some other top schools have been offering free online courses for years, and some other elite universities including Penn have experimented with online offerings by department on a limited basis.
But through Coursera, Penn becomes part of the online course world in a more prominent and permanent way and as part of a group of universities.
"We've been looking for some time for the right opportunity to provide high-quality courses online, and this turned out to be the right opportunity," Penn president Amy Gutmann said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. "It allows us to give access to high-quality courses to millions of people."
The first of Penn's courses will become available in June, with the rest in the following months. Anyone can sign up by going to Coursera.org.
The 12 Penn courses slated for online delivery so far range in topics from health policy, calculus, and modern and contemporary American poetry to the fundamentals of pharmacology, music, and Greek and Roman mythology.
Among the eight courses to be offered at Princeton are introductions to sociology and statistics.
The courses will include 10- to 15-minute lecture video clips, interactive quizzes, and auto-graded exercises. The company also has developed a process in which students will be trained to grade one another's work in areas that require open-ended questions to be analyzed.
"This allows us to grade pretty much anything, open-ended essay questions, business plans, medical case histories," Koller said.
Penn professor Robert Ghrist said he was pleased with the opportunity to teach the online calculus course.
"I really love the idea of having a class of students from all over the world who are interested in having a Penn-quality education but who for one reason or the other aren't able to be here physically," he said.
Ghrist likes the fact that students will be able to interact with one another.
"Students will be answering each other's questions to a large degree," he said. "You learn a subject much better when you're helping someone else learn it."
The most frequently asked questions will be addressed by professors.
"My goal is to have the world's largest calculus class, not just the largest but the best," Ghrist said.
His course starts Aug. 27.
Ghrist also intends to be a consumer of Penn's new online offerings.
He will take the Greek and Roman mythology course - and his 12-year-old daughter is interested in taking it, too, he said.
"I normally don't have enough time in the day. But I'll be able to watch the lectures on the train ride, going in and out of West Philadelphia," said Ghrist, who commutes from Jenkintown.
Besides Penn and Princeton, Stanford and the University of Michigan will offer courses through Coursera under the consortium.
Koller and Andrew Ng, the other cofounder, developed the online platform for use at Stanford in the fall of 2011. The first two courses enrolled about 200,000. Now, there are more than one million enrollees over several courses, they said.
Contact Susan Snyder
at 215-854-4693 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.