A conference in Canberra has seen some of the chiefs of the online education revolution spruik their achievements to local universities.

The chief executive of UK-based online education provider FutureLearn has spoken at the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference, appearing on a double bill with his US counterpart, Anant Agarwal, president of edX.

The two blooming companies provide MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses, largely for free, to students of all ages and education level worldwide.

Despite the chance of profit-making being very slim, many major universities have leapt into the new teaching form. Recent months have seen the University of Queensland, the University of NSW, ANU and Monash University all launching their own online courses, often in conjunction with established companies like FutureLearn.

The students are lining up too, with Future Learn offering 35 separate courses, edX offering 150 and market leader Coursera providing 622 different subjects, there is plenty for them to sink their academic teeth into.

FutureLearn, the youngest of the big names, has already signed up nearly half a million users since launching in September last year. More establish providers edX and Coursera have around 2 million and over 5 million respectively.

At the conference this week Professor Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, said it was exciting to see some of the new benefits offered by online learning. He said it has provided the “big data of learning”; masses of information about the very fine points of students’ guided and undirected learning styles, which can be analysed and interpreted for a number of interesting research goals.

Agarwal says edX is considering giving out the data in de-identified form to researchers.

Online education analyst Dr Sean Gallagher, who co-authored a major study on MOOCs last year, said universities are at the forefront of the new education revolution, but they may not always lead the charge.

“Universities have a dominant position in the market, a significant ­customer base, extremely strong brand equity and an established network,” he said.

“If the great convergence is under way, at some stage over the next few years then education technology companies, or indeed maybe Facebooks or Apples, could be offering products that are indistinguishable or quite possibly better, than those currently offered by universities,” Dr Gallagher said.