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The University of Toronto campus.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The new global marketplace for free online university courses continues to expand quickly, with six new schools, including the University of Toronto and McGill University, signing on with edX, a U.S.-based consortium.

The additions double the roster of schools offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs, through edX, a not-for-profit venture founded last year by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that so far has enrolled more than 700,000 students from 192 countries. It is one of three U.S. startups pouring tens of millions of dollars into online platforms that some expect could revolutionize access to higher education.

The stream of high-profile schools joining the MOOC experiment has drawn detractors, who point to evidence that most of the students signing up aren't deeply engaged. The emphasis in online learning has thus far focused on the sheer numbers of people participating. But now there are signs of a shift toward the potential for research into how students learn – which could in turn invigorate bricks-and-mortar classrooms.

"Clearly, we want to increase access to students worldwide, but we also want to reimagine and reinvent campus education, and research is a big part of that" said edX president Anant Agarwal.

Other new edX member schools include Australian National University and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and each gains access to troves of anonymous data that edX collects – tracking what students click on, whether instant feedback helps them, or how much they learn from peers in discussion groups, for example.

The U of T will offer four edX courses in 2013, and had already joined Coursera, another MOOC platform, last summer. A third MOOC provider, Udacity, inked a deal to do data-driven research into online learning with the University of Alberta last October.

McGill was circumspect, studying a range of options before settling on edX. "It was the emphasis that edX was putting on the ability to learn something about improving on-campus education from this kind of experiment that really attracted us," said Anthony Masi, McGill's provost.

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