Just in case you were wondering if the marriage between technology and education was here to stay, let’s just say the future for these two look pretty rosy. There is no question that digital innovation is making significant inroads into traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ campuses, and online colleges and coursework are now recognized by the education establishment as viable alternatives to traditional post-secondary education institutions.
The recent launch of edX, an open courseware initiative that started as a co-venture between Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is taking off and other players coming on board. It was recently announced that the University of California at Berkeley has partnered with the two east coast schools, and it is anticipated that other colleges and universities will be signing on in the near future. According to sources familiar with the project, over 100 universities have already expressed interest in edX.
“We really want to expand and add universities,” says Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and a major player in the edX leadership team. “Berkeley is the first one, the first of many.”
Original founders MIT and Harvard have each committed $30 million to the project, and foundations and alumni have signalled their support with grants and gifts. The project even received higher education’s equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded edX $1 million dollars in grant funds.
Both Harvard and MIT are private universities, and the addition of U.C. Berkeley bring a major public university into the mix. As part of the deal, U.C. Berkeley has agreed to chair the ‘X University Consortium,’ the recently created edX governing board. And while U.C. Berkeley is not contributing any money to the edX partnership, it is bringing some formidable technology, including an innovative online-education platform designed by the university’s engineers. And in addition, two U.C. Berkeley courses will be added to the edX course catalogue for Fall 2012 -- one on artificial intelligence, and the other on something that Berkeley’s vice chancellor describes as “software as a service.”
Of course, edX isn’t the only game in town. Coursera, a project hatched by two Stanford professors, offers a similar service and has already signed participating universities. However, one major difference between edX and Coursera is their business model -- Coursera is a for-profit venture, and edX was founded as a not-for-profit.
“You should think of edX as a not-for-profit start-up,” says MIT’s Agarwal. “We are gearing up and trying to ramp up as a start-up as fast as we can go.”
Currently, the business plan for edX centers on charging students who successfully complete courses with a modest fee for a completion certificate. There is also discussion about a model that would extend the program to employers, allowing them to offer the courses as an incentive to recruit new talent, or train their existing workforce. One thing is clear, edX leaders know that the clock is ticking when it comes to continuing foundation support.
“We are talking to several other foundations, but I think you have to become self-sustaining,” Agarwal says. “No foundation wants to fund you forever.”
Agarwal also highlights another major difference between for-profit ventures and edX -- edX software will be open source, allowing anyone to use it free and participate in developing and building the code.
“The open-source platform will allow all of us to contribute to the platform and not have to worry too much about who owns the intellectual property—it’s going to be shared,” he says.
Sharing the intellectual wealth via free open courses is something that seems to resonate throughout academia. As one expert observed, “I can’t recall a time when universities at one moment have responded en masse as aggressively and as collaboratively.”
And the edX partners are working hard to ensure that the collaboration continues.