FINALLY, the web has disrupted higher education. One of the most conservative of industries has jumped online in a radical way. "Massive open online courses" — "Moocs" — are being launched every day.

Last week, a consortium of British universities joined the charge. Led by the Open University, they will deliver course content, lectures and assignments to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. And do it all free. The courses do not count towards degrees, dropout rates are high and course design is not quite mature. But they are popular: Coursera, a leading Mooc platform, has more than 2-million registered users.

Universities are experimenting with online business models. The hope is to tap into the thirst for learning. If, as the Open University plans, it can use Moocs to sell UK universities’ distance degrees into new markets, they can do serious good and make real money. This is a low-risk plan; the Moocs are not competing with the universities’ existing business. Students might pay a fee for a Harvard Mooc, but no one will confuse it with a degree. The real risk for institutions is that low-quality Moocs will tarnish their institutional reputation.

Even if universities are ultimately unable to make profits, the effect of free online learning will be felt beyond higher education. First, popular Moocs should raise the prestige of excellent teachers within universities. It ought to be welcomed: teaching is too often too poor even at the most elite institutions. Second, if Mooc technology advances to the point where parts of degrees can be delivered automatically, it could help reduce the cost of university.

Finally, even if universities were to make no money and remain unchanged, free learning is a gift to the world. London, December 18