MOUNTAIN VIEW -- In August, four months after Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng started the online education company Coursera, its free college courses had drawn in a million users, a faster launching than either Facebook or Twitter.
The co-founders, computer professors at Stanford University, watched with amazement as enrollment passed 2 million last month, with 70,000 new students a week signing up for over 200 courses, including human-computer interaction, songwriting and gamification, taught by faculty members at the company's partners, 33 elite universities.
In less than a year, Coursera has attracted $22 million in venture capital and has created so much buzz that some universities sound a bit defensive about not leaping onto the bandwagon.
Other approaches to online courses are emerging as well. Universities nationwide are increasing their online offerings, hoping to attract students around the world. New ventures like Udemy help individual professors put their courses online. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have each provided $30 million to create edX. Another Stanford spinoff, Udacity, has attracted more than a million students to its menu of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, along with $15 million in financing.
All of this could well add up to the future of higher education -- if anyone can figure out how to make money.
Coursera has grown at warp speed to emerge as the current leader of the pack, striving to support its business by creating revenue streams through licensing, certification fees and recruitment data provided to employers, among other efforts. But there is no guarantee that it will keep its position in the exploding education technology marketplace.
"No one's got the model that's going to work yet," said James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law. "I expect all the current ventures to fail, because the expectations are too high. People think something will catch on like wildfire. But more likely, it's maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money."
For their part, Koller and Ng proclaim a desire to keep courses freely available to poor students worldwide. Education, they have said repeatedly, should be a right, not a privilege. And even their venture backers say profits can wait.
"Monetization is not the most important objective for this business at this point," said Scott Sandell, a Coursera financier who is a general partner at New Enterprise Associates. "What is important is that Coursera is rapidly accumulating a body of high-quality content that could be very attractive to universities that want to license it for their own use. We invest with a very long mindset, and the gestation period of the very best companies is at least 10 years."
But with the first trickles of revenue now coming in, Coursera's university partners expect to see some revenue sooner.
Right now, the most promising source of revenue for Coursera is the payment of licensing fees from other educational institutions that want to use the Coursera classes, either as a ready-made "course in a box" or as video lectures students can watch before going to class to work with a faculty member.
Koller has plenty of other ideas, as well. She is planning to charge $20, or maybe $50, for certificates of completion. And her company, like Udacity, has begun to charge corporate employers, including Facebook and Twitter, for access to high-performing students, starting with those studying software engineering.