Coursera is exploring ways to generate revenue, including charging students for certificates and charging employers who want to identify top students.

Faced with a shortage of engineering talent, many tech companies have already asked for introductions to students who successfully completed his online course, Ng said. Some students told him they landed new jobs after showing employers their Coursera certificates.

The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer five Coursera courses this fall, said Richard DeMillo, a computer science professor who heads the Center for 21st Century Universities.

"We're in the middle of a potentially groundbreaking experiment," DeMillo said. "Really big things could come out of it."