Elite universities have learned this year that offering free online courses will draw a huge global audience.

Now educators want to know whether those courses are worthy of academic credit and how they might be used to help more people pursue college degrees.

The American Council on Education, which represents university presidents, said Tuesday it is teaming with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the free online education provider Coursera on an initiative to seek answers to those questions.

The announcement is the latest sign of the emerging influence of what are known as mass­ive open online courses, or MOOCs. Millions of people this year have tried out MOOCs on Web sites such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and others.

“MOOCs are an intriguing, innovative new approach that hold much promise for engaging students across the country and around the world, as well as for helping colleges and universities broaden their reach,” Molly Corbett Broad, president of the council, said in a statement. She said the council is eager to help answer questions such as whether the free online courses can “increase learning productivity.”

Under the initiative, Coursera will pay the council a to-be-determined fee to evaluate the credit-worthiness of a selection of its courses. Coursera, a for-profit company, hosts about 200 courses from 33 prominent institutions. Among local participants are the universities of Virginia and Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.

Broad said the council also is in discussions with edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture led by MIT and Harvard University, about possible analysis of its courses.

The universities that offer MOOCs have not said that they intend to award credits for them. But a recommendation from the council that the courses are worthy of credit would be a key step toward helping students obtain transfer credit from other schools. Another key step would be to arrange proctored exams to verify student work.

Daphne Koller, a Stanford University computer scientist and co-founder of Coursera, said she envisions that soon a student might enroll in a course for free, decide at the end to pay a fee to take a proctored exam, secure a passing grade and then obtain credit toward a degree.

If that path to credit materializes, she said, it could widen access to degrees and improve college completion rates. “It’s going to push more people into college,” she said, “and make them more successful.”

In the meantime, the Gates Foundation is awarding the council more than $895,000 in grants to coordinate research on MOOCs and convene university presidents for an “innovation lab” to discuss strategies to capitalize on the potential of the free online courses.

The foundation also announced Tuesday awards of more than $2 million to other organizations and schools for projects related to MOOCs.

Some university presidents are skeptical.

C.L. Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, said his school will not offer free online courses. He said he worries about how much students learn through MOOCs and whether their achievement can be verified.

“We all need to be very careful,” Nikias said. “We should never be afraid to experiment. But on the other hand, we are an academic institution.” Upholding standards for rigor and integrity, he said, is a paramount concern. “If you’re not careful about that, then in my humble opinion, you get onto a slippery slope.”

But MOOCs have gained momentum, with universities drawn toward mass audiences and consumers lured by the prospect of sampling elite education for free.

“It’s growing and continues to grow rapidly,” said Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, a participant in the new research on MOOCs. “People are looking for affordable access to higher education.”