All of the classroom seats in Huntsman Hall couldn’t accommodate the number of students registered for Kevin Werbach’s six-week summer course on gamification. More than 37,000 registered for the Wharton associate professor’s class, offered through the online education platform Coursera. To put that number in perspective, last fall 24,832 full- and part-time students were registered at the University of Pennsylvania—total.

Heralded by some as the next big thing in online education, Coursera is a venture-backed startup developed by two computer scientists from Stanford University. The platform is designed to deliver world-class educational opportunities to a global audience—at no cost. Classes are taught by leading faculty from more than a dozen renowned universities. Its growing list of topics includes computer science, advanced mathematics, humanities, social sciences and business. At least 10 classes have started or are in progress, with scores more scheduled through spring 2013.

The University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, the University of Michigan and Princeton were the original partners in this endeavor; universities that have joined them on the Coursera platform include Johns Hopkins, U.C. San Francisco, Georgia Institute of Technology, Caltech, University of Edinburgh, Duke, Rice and others.

These universities are intent on capitalizing on the expanding online marketplace for cost-free education. Through Coursera, says Werbach, “Wharton and Penn have a huge opportunity to leverage our strengths into the connected digital era.”

Online education is not a new concept. Accredited universities have been experimenting with virtual classrooms for decades. But the free, massively open online course (MOOC) model has gained significant momentum in recent months, and Coursera is among the first to partner with top universities and apply the concept to higher education.

“The fact that Coursera and its competitors have generated so much attention and adoption by top universities tells me something about the current environment,” says Werbach. “Timing means a great deal when it comes to innovation. The combination of widespread broadband adoption, significant economic pressure on higher education and a growing conversation about educational innovation seem to make this an opportune moment.”

Werbach sees Coursera classes as competing with informal learning methods, such as professional development workshops. The platform’s founders, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, have stated that they designed the platform as a complement to the traditional education model, not as a competitor.

At this early stage in its history, Coursera also has a lot to prove. Werbach emphasizes that Coursera and similar platforms must demonstrate the educational value of the MOOC model, clarify the goals of the courses and show that people completing courses are actually learning.

“Massively open online courses have been overhyped, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting and significant,” says Werbach. “I’ve long believed that top-tier institutions like Wharton have the greatest opportunity to think creatively about new models.”

Coursera’s roster of Wharton classes also includes “An Introduction to Operations Management” by Christian Terwiesch, the Andrew M. Heller professor and senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics, and “Creation of Artifacts in Society” by Karl Ulrich, Wharton’s CIBC Professor of Entrepreneurship and e-Commerce and vice dean of innovation.