They will aim to give the public access to higher education courses via computers, tablets or smartphones.
The partnership will include the Open University, King’s College London, Bristol, Exeter, Warwick, East Anglia, Leeds, Lancaster, Southampton, Cardiff, Birmingham and St Andrews.
Courses will be offered from next year.
This could “revolutionise conventional models of formal education”, says Universities Minister David Willetts.
The project will represent the biggest UK response to rapidly growing online universities – with these universities planning to offer courses through a shared online platform.
There are usually no formal entry requirements for students on such courses but individual universities will have to decide how students can be examined and accredited.
Martin Bean, the Open University’s vice-chancellor, said that the arrival of online courses meant that UK universities could either “stick their heads in the sand” or rise to the international challenge.
The vice-chancellor said higher education had to face up to the impact of the internet on delivering courses.
A new company called FutureLearn is being set up to run this online project, which will be majority-owned by the Open University.
“The big frontier” for online universities, says Mr Bean, is how to test and award credits for such large numbers of students.