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More elite universities offer free online courses

SAN FRANCISCO — More of the world's elite universities are joining the rush to offer "massive open online courses," but it's still uncertain whether so-called MOOCs will help more students earn college degrees.

Coursera and edX, two of the leading MOOC providers, on Thursday announced major expansions that will roughly double the number of universities offering free online courses through their websites.

Cambridge, Mass.-based edX, which was founded in May by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it will add six new institutions, including five outside the U.S., which will offer at least 25 additional courses.

Mountain View-based Coursera said it will add 29 institutions, including 16 outside the United States. Over the next several months, the schools will offer 90 new courses, including some taught in French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese.

"Having courses taught in other languages will enable more students to take our classes," said Andrew Ng, a Stanford University professor who co-founded Coursera last April.

MOOCs have attracted millions of students and captured the public imagination over the past year, allowing people from all walks of life to learn from leading scholars at elite universities — free of charge.

But the question remains: Can these large-scale, highly automated classes help increase college completion rates or lower the cost of earning a degree?

So far only a small number of institutions are offering degree credit for MOOCs, but that could change if more colleges determine the digital classes meet their academic standards.

Earlier this month, the American Council on Education said it will recommend credit for five Coursera courses. The association is evaluating more MOOCs for possible credit recommendations, which many schools use to decide whether to grant credit for nontraditional courses.

Critics say online-only courses have unacceptably high dropout rates and aren't well-suited for struggling students who need more face-to-face interaction and mentoring to succeed.

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