Massively open online classes — MOOCs — hit a tipping point in 2012. That means you'd better learn to pronounce that awkward word, even if you sound like a coughing cow when you do. MOOCs are about to change the world.

A typical MOOC is an online course open to people all over the globe via the Internet. Usually, no fee is charged and no credit is awarded. The MOOC phenomenon has potential to make higher learning less expensive and more widely available, even as it shakes the foundation of higher education's profit model.

Free online classes, often open-sourced, have improved in quality and popularity over the past five years. This year, such blue-chip schools as Harvard, MIT and Stanford stopped running scared of MOOCs, adopting a strategy akin to "If you can't beat ’em, join ’em." When the Ivy League began legitimizing MOOCs, it signaled that something big is happening, said the New York Times last July.

"If it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience," the New York Times said.

People living in foreign countries form the majority of MOOC students now, but if top-tier universities begin granting credit for MOOCs — as the New York Times predicts they will — non-elite schools have reason to worry about attracting students to their brick-and-mortar campuses.

And MOOCs are already creating alternate pathways to the workplace that leave colleges out of the loop. Udacity, an online education site bent on democratizing education, recently announced that Microsoft, Google and other companies are sponsoring classes through its site in skills they need workers to have, such as 3-D graphics programming and building apps for Android phones, according to an October story in Time magazine by Amanda Ripley.

Meanwhile, participation from Harvard, Stanford and MIT has upped the respectability of MOOCs and attracted the interest of venture capitalists, Ripley's story said.

"In less than a year, online higher education has gone from the province of downmarket for-profit colleges to being embraced by the most famous universities in the world," said a story in Washington Monthly magazine.

Want to peek at a MOOC? You can. Udacity's 14 free classes include basic computer science, an intermediate course in software debugging and an advanced course in artificial intelligence. Online communities have grown up around the classes, which reach many thousands of students around the world.

Coursera is a company founded by Stanford University professors Andrewn Ng and Daphne Koller. The company partners with top universities around the globe to produce courses that have drawn more than a million students.

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"When you take one of our (free) classes, you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge, and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises," Coursera's website promises. "When you join one of our classes, you'll also join a global community of thousands of students learning alongside you."

Coursera is funded by venture capital, plus nominal certificate fees paid by students who want proof that they passed the course. Subject areas span humanities, sciences, mathematics and business.

edX is a nonprofit business founded by Harvard and MIT, joined recently by Berkeley. Its free courses include solid-state chemistry, circuits and electronics and computer science.