The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. (Christopher Harting/courtesy MIT)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Wednesday the creation of an online track for getting a certain type of master’s degree, an experiment with the potential to open up its admissions process to the world as never before.

Here’s the idea: Anyone can take a suite of courses in supply chain management designed by MIT through the free online Web site known as edX. Those who do well in that semester of study and pass a set of proctored exams can earn what’s called a “MicroMaster’s” from the online unit of MIT called MITx.

Top performers could then apply for a residential slot in a full master’s degree program in supply chain management based in Cambridge. If they get in, they would be only a semester away from finishing a full master’s degree. Ordinarily, the regular master’s program in that field is two semesters.

MIT calls this experiment “inverted admission.” It will start in February.

“We’re democratizing access to a master’s program for learners worldwide,” said Sanjay Sarma, dean of digital learning at MIT.

About 36 to 40 students every year are enrolled in the traditional supply chain management master’s degree program. MIT President L. Rafael Reif said the experiment could triple the annual output of master’s degrees in that field.

[MIT looks to stay in the vanguard of digital education.]

A great unknown is what value the MicroMaster’s will have in the field.

Reif said MIT pondered for a while what to call the online credential. “‘MiniMaster’s’ sounded a little funny,” he said. But something was needed to honor the achievement of online learners. “Students are going to work hard to get one semester of graduate level courses online,” Reif said, “and they have to get something to reward them for that hard work.”

MIT’s idea comes as universities and digital entrepreneurs are racing to integrate massive open online courses, or MOOCs, into higher education. MOOCs gained renown in 2012, with advocates predicting they could disrupt the business model of colleges and universities known for exclusivity and dependent on tuition revenue. Skeptics have said the impact of the free-online movement has been overhyped.

[MOOCs: Elite education for the masses.]

Coursera, another major site with free online courses, in May announced a new online way to earn a graduate degree in business.

“The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign College of Business is developing the first open online MBA offered in part through Coursera,” said Coursera co-founder and President Daphne Koller. “This ‘iMBA’ program opens a number of pathways towards gaining a high quality education from a top business school.

“Launching for admissions later this year, the iMBA consists of a set of Specializations (series of courses) in different areas of business expertise. Learners can take one course, one Specialization, or go on to take a set of Specializations in order to earn an MBA degree from the University of Illinois.”

Koller called the “new model for a graduate degree” extraordinary in part because the curriculum “will be freely available for everyone.”