Anant Agarwal, right, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, now president of the online education program EdX, speaks with content engineer Sarina Canelake, left, at the organization's Kendall Square offices. (Josh Reynolds/For The Washington Post)

A new academic credential of unknown worth is circulating around the world, issued by affiliates of some of the most valuable brands in higher education.

These “certificates of mastery,” available for free to anyone with an Internet connection who passes an online course, come from BerkeleyX, MITx and HarvardX. Soon, there will be certificates from GeorgetownX.

But not from AmherstX.

The Amherst College faculty in April rejected a proposal to join the online education venture called edX, a setback for one of the leaders in a fast-growing movement that seeks to open up elite schools to the masses and improve their teaching. The episode offered a rare window into the intense debate in academia over whether the proliferation of free online courses will undermine or strengthen top-tier schools.

Millions of people worldwide have registered for massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, in the past year through Web sites such as edX, Coursera and others. Within days, Georgetown University plans to unveil its first two MOOCs.

But as the novelty of MOOCs wears off, educators are asking hard questions about how the sites will make money and what colleges stand to gain. Academic powerhouses sense a pivotal moment of risk and opportunity. Some are plunging forward. Others are holding back.

Amherst President Biddy Martin had favored joining edX, calling it “a helpful experiment.” But many on the faculty, given an unusual chance to vote on the matter, wondered why a prestigious liberal arts college devoted to “learning through close colloquy” should put its name on courses attempting to teach tens of thousands of people at once.

MOOCs are “greatly hyped,” Amherst biologist Stephen A. George said. “What is it without any human interaction with a professor? To say that is education is very hard to swallow.”

Leaders of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, who launched edX a year ago Thursday, vigorously disagree. They say MOOCs provide insight into how students learn, online and on campus, and in no way cheapen diplomas awarded to those who compete for admission, pay tuition and earn a traditional degree.

“The core of our mission is to provide the best possible education on our campus,” Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber said. “We view edX as part of that strategy.” He said the online venture “has the potential to take our pedagogy to the next level.”

Elite schools in the MOOC movement face the risk that innovations they develop will lead to upheaval that threatens their own position. If students can learn from the best professors for free at a distance, some wonder, why should they pay tens of thousands a year to do so in person?

With startling speed, MOOCs have inspired breakthroughs in the design of video lectures and virtual laboratories. Machines can grade written responses to open-ended questions in a rudimentary way. Discussion boards organize and animate vast communities of learners. Online classes have enlisted thousands of students as peer graders, with encouraging results.

“Online learning is just getting better and better and better at a remarkable rate,” Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, an expert on innovation, said in March here at MIT. “And so what was impossible in the past — disruption of higher ed — actually is quite plausible. And in fact, it is underway at a scary pace.”

Opportunities for top schools also seem huge. MOOCs are expanding their global reach and inspiring faculty to rethink old lesson plans. Still, there is great uncertainty about how the movement will unfold.

“Where are we going? The short answer is, we don’t know, but we know we have to go there,” said W. Eric L. Grimson, chancellor of MIT. He added: “Clay Christensen has it right. There’s a disruption coming in this field, and we want to be out in front of it.”

Ramp up and find revenue

MIT, founded in 1861, just celebrated its 150th birthday. Harvard, established in 1636, is heading toward its quadricentennial.

EdX turns one this week.

The nonprofit organization, based in Cambridge at Broadway and Galileo Galilei Way, is led by an electrical engineering professor from MIT named Anant Agarwal. The edX president offered an early MOOC on circuits and electronics.

There are now 26 MOOCs from Harvard, MIT, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, on topics from global poverty to computer science, with more coming from Georgetown and seven other edX partners.

“We are a toddler becoming a teenager,” Agarwal said. “We were born last year. Things moved really fast, of course.”

EdX reports about 890,000 unique users, more than 70 percent from outside the United States. Many are dabblers. About 12 to 15 percent of what edX calls “active learners” earn certificates. Tens of thousands of certificates are in circulation. But edX said no total was available.

The market leader is Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif., which offers hundreds of MOOCs from dozens of schools, including Johns Hopkins University and the universities of Maryland and Virginia. Coursera has registered more than 3 million users since its launch in April 2012.

Unlike edX, Coursera aims to make a profit. Unlike Coursera, edX plans to make its platform open source. Starting June 1, edX officials said, their software code will be available for free to others who want to build their own MOOC platform.

Agarwal’s mission is to ramp up and find revenue for a venture that began with $60 million from MIT and Harvard. With a full-time staff of 70, Agarwal hopes to double in size by the end of 2014.

That plan assumes new funding.

“Okay teenager, you want to drive a car?” Agarwal said, continuing the growth metaphor. “You’ve got to earn some money.”

To do that, Agarwal is exploring the sale of special certificates to MOOC students who pass exams proctored at secure locations. He also is cutting deals with colleges that weave edX MOOCs into their own courses. San Jose State University and others in California are launching such hybrids. In essence, these courses have two sets of instructors — those from prestigious universities lecturing online, and those from the local colleges guiding students in person.

For this use, Agarwal said, MOOCs are functioning as “the next generation textbook.”

At nearby Bunker Hill Community College, students are taking an MIT MOOC on computer science and programming. In addition to access to MIT-developed course materials, they have two live instructors.

“Very effective,” said Thomas McGahey, 18, a student in the class. “It’s almost as if you have a third professor in the house — or wherever you are.”

Potential and skepticism

At the nation’s oldest college, MOOCs have set professors abuzz.

Robert A. Lue, a Harvard biologist helping to lead the project, said more than 100 faculty members are “chomping at the bit to do something.” He considers that a major shift: “Ten years ago, there was a tiny minority of us that were really intrigued by this.”

Among those in the vanguard is Gregory Nagy. Since the 1970s, the classics professor has taught a popular course on heroes in ancient Greek literature. He jumped at the chance to offer one of the first humanities MOOCs.

“I saw enormous potential here,” Nagy said. “It’s making Harvard more accessible to more people.”

Launched in March, the MOOC has drawn 30,000 students. That’s nearly three times the estimated 10,000 who have taken the campus version in the past four decades.

Nagy’s MOOC features short videos of himself and others analyzing classics such as the “Iliad.” There are clips of students reciting Homeric poetry and of scenes from modern works, including the film “Blade Runner,” that Nagy uses for comparison. Online students take multiple-choice quizzes and respond to questions on passages highlighted within texts.

Many also participate in discussion groups named for characters such as Achilles and Penelope. Dozens of alumni who have taken the traditional course have volunteered to help guide the forums. Nagy, with assistance from a scholarly production team, said he has spent many more hours than usual on assessments and teaching methods.

“This experience is helping me rethink what I’ve done in the classroom for the last 37 years,” Nagy said. Developing the MOOC, he said, has made him “a better professor.”

Still, there is deep skepticism in many quarters of academia. The Amherst faculty voted 70 to 41 against joining edX, with five abstentions. Experimenting with MOOCs might enhance the college’s reputation, a faculty committee’s analysis suggested, but might be inconsistent with its mission. The analysis also challenged whether there are any impartial studies of the proposition that MOOCs improve face-to-face teaching.

“Amherst is a wonderful institution and we would have been delighted to have them join,” edX said in a statement afterward. “We acknowledge that online educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all courses or all faculty.”

There is no doubt that MIT and Harvard, like Amherst, remain committed to residential education. But it seems likely that MOOCs will catalyze major change.

MIT’s Grimson said the online revolution is raising questions about course length and the time it takes to earn a degree. Some MOOCs could be chopped into pieces, he said, and spliced into other courses. Think of a two-week chunk of math inserted into an engineering course. Imagine an economics MOOC that weaves together contributions from Harvard, MIT and the University of Chicago.

Or imagine using MOOCs to identify potential MIT students. It happened a few months ago.

Agarwal said he spotted a 17-year-old named Amol Bhave, from Jabalpur, India, who had aced his MOOC on circuits and electronics. The edX president recommended Bhave to MIT’s dean of admissions. In March, Bhave said, he was admitted to the Class of 2017.

“Prof. Agarwal was a wonderful teacher and his ‘Aha’ moments (as the professor used to refer the most revealing moments) were really really exciting,” Bhave said in an e-mail. “And now I am going to be there in person to meet all those fantastic teachers. Just can’t wait to hop on campus.”