MINNEAPOLIS — A digital frontier will be reached when the University of Minnesota offers free and accessible massive online classes for the first time this spring.

The courses will be open to anyone throughout the state and the world.

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are a growing trend in higher education. Top universities such as Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are offering college-level courses that anyone can take.

Because the courses are online, tens of thousands of people can learn from the same professor at the same time. And in most cases, the classes are free.

That fits the mission of the university, said Karen Hanson, U of M provost.

"The possibilities here for using technology effectively — and, I think, cost-effectively, as well — to enhance higher education are huge," Hanson said.

The university joins more than 50 other U.S. and foreign schools that are working with Coursera, an online education company.

Initially, five courses will be offered from the fields of science, agriculture and health, but university administrators hope to expand its offerings by the end of the year. U of M professors will produce videos and exams. Coursera will host the courses online for free.

Supporters of MOOCs say such arrangements bring education to people who live far from universities and to those who normally could not afford it.

Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller said university students will be able to explore subjects without risking money or bad grades.

"Think about the benefit of this for, say, an incoming college student or somebody in high school who has no idea what they actually want to major in," Koller said. "They end up making decisions based on something they hear from a friend, or they see on TV or something.

"Here, there is the opportunity for them to try out different things and find one that's really their passion, and they're much more likely to succeed in that."

For now, the university will not grant course credit for the classes.

But Coursera hopes to earn revenue someday by charging for credentials, or related services. The university would share in any future revenue that Coursera gets from the courses. The university will own the presentations, and will be able to use the material in its classes on campus.

The project should not cost U of M anything, Hanson said, other than staff and faculty time.

"We don't know exactly how best to deploy this, but we're proceeding with this cautiously without throwing money into the project in a way that we don't understand," Hanson said. "We know we will get value out of what we're doing, taking one careful step at a time."

Hanson said MOOCs are a great tool for education, but adds that they are not a substitute for attending college.

State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, this week introduced a bill to relax regulations on colleges that want to offer MOOCs to Minnesota students.