Relatively slow to embrace online courses, Ohio State University started offering free, noncredit e-classes a year ago, and it has been blown away by the response.

Relatively slow to embrace online courses, Ohio State University started offering free, noncredit e-classes a year ago, and it has been blown away by the response.

Almost 234,000 students from more than 150 countries enrolled in Ohio State’s first six classes on Coursera, and the videos for those classes have been downloaded more than 3.4 million times.

Coursera is an education company founded by two Stanford University professors that partners with universities, such as Duke, John Hopkins and Princeton, to offer free online classes called MOOCs, short for “massive open online courses.” It has more than 400 courses in its catalog and 4 million students in its virtual lecture halls.

OSU’s Calculus One class has been particularly popular. It hit an enrollment high of 47,000 students in the spring and surpassed more than

1.5 million downloads this year. Students from around the world sent thank-you notes.

Created as an introduction to college-level calculus, the class has drawn a range of students, including middle- and high-school students interested in getting a jump-start on their higher education, college students who need a refresher and others who are just curious.

In a promotional video for the course, OSU math lecturer Bart Snapp proclaims that calculus is a “triumph of human thought” and the “underpinning of all modern science.”

Throughout the course, he and fellow math lecturer Jim Fowler use calculus to help students figure out everyday problems, such as how old is Snapp’s cat, Roxy, in kitty years. They also challenge students to calculate answers to fun problems, such as how long until gray goo destroys Earth or what would happen if zombies attacked the Ohio State campus.

“I just hope we get more people doing math,” Fowler said.

The two professors’ enthusiasm hooked twin eighth-graders Khadija and Shaheer Niazi of Lahore, Pakistan.

“When we enrolled, we were thinking it might be some boring, dry course where a professor will be motionless, sitting still while looking straight in the camera with an expressionless face,” the 13-year-olds said in an email. “But our expectations turned out to be totally wrong.”

They said the course, which includes more than 100 hours of video, a free textbook and interactive graphics and games, gave them the confidence to learn math in a fun way. Competitive, the brother-sister duo tried to outdo each other on homework and quizzes and celebrated their successes and encouraged others in the online forum.

Some educators see MOOCs as higher education’s high-tech future. Others say they’re the latest in a long line of e-fads, plagued with poor student participation and completion.

Ohio State says it’s just another tool to help spread knowledge and attract new students. The university doesn’t give credit for the MOOC courses, but it has created a few similar credit classes for enrolled students and is seeking a way to verify that those who enroll in the Coursera classes do the work themselves.

“Our job is to experiment with education to find ways to meet people’s needs, especially the new generation of students who have become so adapted to technology that it’s almost scary,” said Mike Hofherr, associate vice president of OSU’s Office of Distance Education and eLearning.

OSU’s experimentation isn’t limited to Coursera. The university launched a program in 2012 called Digital First to help professors create courses that students can access online. OSU professors have created 40 courses for Apple’s iTunes U that have been accessed 3.8 million times this year. The university also is expanding its undergraduate, graduate and professional-level online credit courses.

And Ohio State is using what it learns from online classes to improve traditional classes. Many professors are “flipping their classrooms” so students view short video lectures at home and devote their in-class time to discussions, exercises or projects.

OSU has classes in math, writing, pharmacy and city planning on Coursera and is working on adding several more, including courses on Latin American migration and human trafficking.

OSU’s star, the calculus class, has had broad appeal.

John Meloy, a 77-year-old former Navy officer and retired senior research engineer from Mariposa, Calif., took the course with his daughter, Trena. She is interested in becoming a financial adviser and wanted to brush up on her math skills. He wanted to support her.

After devoting much of retirement to community service, Meloy said he needed to find another way to keep his mind occupied. The online course gave Meloy a renewed sense of worth and value to the community, which is particularly important as he gets older, he said.

“Life is not over until it’s over, and there is no reason to stop learning, even if that learning will not forward your career.”