Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology aren’t exactly newcomers to the world of online education. Over the last decade, both have offered distance learning courses, via Harvard’s Extension School and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. However, these two education powerhouses have just announced a joint venture that is causing ripples throughout the academic world.
This new initiative, called edX, stems from MITx, a platform of free online courses that the Cambridge tech bastion launched in 2011. Now, with Harvard’s involvement, the project is greatly expanded, with each institution putting up an initial investment of $30 million. The new venture will be governed by a non-profit organization, with Anant Agarwal, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and one of the founders of MITx, as its first president.
While students who participate and complete coursework on edX outside the Harvard/MIT campuses will not receive credit from either university, they can earn course completion certificates. edX can also be used as a powerful research tool to help universities develop online learning programs. Educators are hopeful this will provide valuable insights into how students learn in an online environment. As an example, Agarwal cited the MITx course “Circuits and Electronics,” which allowed researchers to collect significant data in on how students use these platforms. He predicts edX will give educators an important window into understanding what works and what doesn’t in the world of online learning. Because edX has the potential to reach a substantial student audience, he predicts the data sets collected could prove to be statistically significant in a very short amount of time.
The main focus of the edX program is to give both institutions an advantage in improving learning for Harvard and MIT students and to the public at large. However, L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost, cautions that edX will eventually have to find ways to be sustainable on its own.
“Clearly, we want to make sure that this does not become a drain on the budgets of Harvard and MIT,” Dr. Reif said in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The efforts of other elite universities, like Columbia University, to launch online or distance learning programs have either been greatly curtailed or closed because of a lack of a sound financial foundation. Recently, Stanford University, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan joined forces with Coursera, a for-profit online learning company founded and run by two computer science professors from Stanford University. The Palo Alto campus is widely acknowledged as one of the prime incubators for online learning development and has drawn the attention of the financial community.
According to George Siemens, an expert in the field of open online courses, edX is an attempt by MIT and Harvard to wrestle this new frontier of education from the control of venture capitalists. He notes while Coursera’s long-term strategy is profit based, a sustainability model is not in place for edX. But whatever the outcome, Siemens predicts that in a decade, college administrators may very well look back on online education projects like Coursera and edX as the birth of a an alternative-credential model that could revolutionize education.
“It’s a natural progression of the Internet influencing and impacting what we thought was a pretty stable field,” Siemens commented in the Chronicle article. “But all it takes is six months of pretty surprising announcements in terms of open-course initiatives, and all of a sudden you can start to picture that education seems to be at the threshold of a very dramatic change.”