Coursera feeds an appetite for continuing education. Its potential to democratize higher ed through online learning is huge. But the start-up goes a step farther by predicting that most of us would prefer to take classes from top-flight schools if we could.

UPDATE: In addition to free courses offered through the start-up Coursera, the University of Washington plans to offer people the option of paying to take versions of its Coursera classes. Incentives will include additional online instruction and assessment and, in some cases, course credit. The UW lays out its plan here.

The value of Coursera is the public’s healthy appetite for continuing education. A few years ago when I was applying for academic fellowships, part of the exercise was going through the course catalogues of Harvard and Stanford universities and selecting the great thinkers from whom I’d want to take a class. No credit or degree would be conferred, just a chance to learn from the best and brightest.

Now someone has converted that idea into a potentially lucrative start up.

The University of Washington is joining the growing list of Ivy League and top-notch institutions including, Harvard, Princeton and MIT, offering free online classes through Coursera, a for-profit effort touted as the path to democratizing education. The ivy towers are a-coming down.

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Coursera fills a growing demand for college-level education. Check out the list of classes offered here. Economists and industry leaders are in agreement that two-thirds of jobs in the future will require some level of college, from career certification to associates degrees to baccalaureate degrees.

The question is how will people use Coursera. Will they see it as a means to burnishing resumes or indulging an interest in game theory? Harkening back to my own experience, if money were not a barrier, wouldn’t we all be logging on to hear from globally renown bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel from the University of Pennyslvania or someother such luminary?

But Coursera courses do not confer credit or degrees. At a time when getting the biggest bang for one’s college buck is so critical, will people gravitate to Coursera or see it as a luxury and remain focused on school from where they can actually receive a piece of paper that might lead to a job? Will the imprimatur of a college degree still count in a new world where college can be free if you’re willing to forgo the degree?