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Students walk past Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto.Sami Siva

The University of Toronto is the first Canadian school to tap into the exploding interest in open online courses, signing on with a startup led by heavyweight U.S. schools such as Stanford and Princeton.

The U of T will be the lone Canadian university among 11 international schools announced on Tuesday as new partners in Coursera, a major U.S.-based venture offering "massive open online courses" (MOOCs), a rapidly expanding trend whereby top schools offer free online instruction to anyone who signs up.

The appeal to universities of giving their wares away for free is part branding exercise, part international outreach and part hard business sense, experts say. Schools want to spread their names globally, foster reputations as innovators and test technologies that some expect to rewire higher education radically.

Although the term MOOC was coined in 2008 to describe a pioneering open course that a pair of Canadians designed, Canada has been slow to join the rush. Two Stanford University professors launched Coursera earlier this year, with classes from four universities, including Stanford and Princeton.

Now U of T will pilot five short courses this coming school year alongside partners such as the California Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh.

"It is just a way of getting our courses and our content and our great instructors in front of the whole world," said U of T provost Cheryl Misak. "It's great to be aligned with Stanford and Princeton."

The U of T courses will roll out this fall, lasting four to six weeks. They are not for credit, nor will they provide certificates offered by other major MOOC initiatives.

No money is changing hands between U of T and Coursera, and prominent professors are volunteering to teach the classes, which range in subject from computer science to social work. But Dr. Misak can envision using the platform for full-credit or continuing education courses.

Canadian schools are starting to see MOOCs as a way to "dramatically increase the visibility of their brand," and to reach the growing middle class in emerging countries such as India and Brazil, said Maxim Jean-Louis, president of distance education network Contact North. But he also thinks schools spy pots of gold in the hundreds of thousands of students they might charge small fees for certificates. "I was convinced since the very beginning that this is seen as something that they're going to monetize," Mr. Jean-Louis said.

Profit is undoubtedly the goal of the private firms bankrolling MOOC initiatives – Coursera received $16-million in venture capital in April. Yet with only a fraction of students finishing courses, money may still be a secondary concern for universities.

"They're trying to make sense of what exactly this technology space is: How can we teach in it, and how can we be seen as being leaders in it, rather than antiquated systems?" said George Siemens, an Athabasca University researcher who helped create the course often credited as the first true MOOC.

Dr. Siemens has criticized Canada as a laggard in open access learning. But U of T's move into the field may be a sign Canadian educators are starting to embrace rather than fear it.

"This is the world we live in now," Dr. Misak said.

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