Five academic publishers are trialling a pilot programme with the US-based Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider Coursera.
Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, Sage and Wiley are experimenting with offering Coursera students versions of their e-textbooks, delivered via a DRM-protected e-reader provided by student learning platform Chegg.
Coursera said it was also "actively discussing pilot agreements and related alliances" with other publishers, including Springer.
The major MOOC provider, which began running courses with the University of Edinburgh earlier this year, said the development was "an innovative step forward for free online education". Coursera said: "While professors teaching Coursera's broad course offerings have until now been able to assign high-quality content freely available on the Web, they will now be able to work with top publishers to provide an even wider variety of carefully curated teaching and learning materials at no cost to the student."
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said: "We recognise the importance of forging partnerships with other stakeholders in the education space in order to help students overcome barriers and evolve the way they access education. By collaborating with publishers, we are able to provide access to some of the world's best resources to Coursera students, supporting our goal of learning without limits."
Publishers Sage said it would work closely with its authors to provide Coursera-registered students with free access to "select textbook content requested by instructors" for the duration of the eight-week long MOOC courses, with Coursera students also having the option to buy print and digital copies of Sage texts and premium resources.
Sage vice-president of editorial Michele Sordi said: "Since the founding of our company in 1965, Sage has been highly committed to the broad dissemination of scholarship and education in often unprecedented ways."
UK academics have recently been calling for an increase in material made available for MOOCs.