CAMBRIDGE - Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology will team up on a $60 million initiative to offer freeonline, college-level courses under a joint superbrand known asedX, the universities said Wednesday. The Harvard-MIT move - an altruistic giveaway, a potential researchbonanza, and an audacious bet on the future of higher education allin one - instantly made the schools preeminent players in theburgeoning worldwide online education sector. The venture joinsseveral major start-ups in recent months across the country. The full edX program is expected to be up and running by fall. |
In December, MIT said it would create Web-based courses featuringdiscussion forums, short videos, and laboratory simulations underthe guidance of its professors and teaching assistants. Now that Harvard has joined, the universities plan to collaborateon research into how students learn online by monitoring theprogress of the hundreds of thousands of people they hope will signup. "Through this partnership, we will not only make knowledgemore available, but we will learn more aboutlearning,"" Harvard president Drew Faust said at a newsconference. "Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere inthe world can have access."" Standing beside Faust, MIT president Susan Hockfield said:"You can choose to view this era as one of threatening changeand unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment chargedwith the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in ourlifetimes."" Alan Garber, Harvard"s provost, said in a phone call that theventure gives both schools a chance to "collect data thatsimply hasn"t existed. How much time do students spend withdifferent elements? Do people who go back and repeat a videosegment learn better, or worse?"" Representatives of both schools said they thought the effort wouldenhance their brands rather than weaken them.
"This is not about diluting or not diluting,""said Rafael Reif, MIT"s provost. "This is about givingour students the best education possible. At the same time, once wehave the content online, we might as well share it with theworld."" A person involved in internal discussions said the initial Harvardcourses, to be announced this summer, are likely to include oneeach in computer science, the social sciences, and the humanities. Although edX will draw faculty and resources from both Harvard andMIT - including initial commitments of $30 million each - it willbe an independent, nonprofit entity.
Its ultimate goal goes beyond the two academic powerhouses.Administrators hope other universities will use the technology fromthe open-source edX platform to deliver their own content. At least one local university is interested: Suffolk. Its newpresident, James McCarthy, served on the advisory committee for amajor national report on online education that came out Monday. "The fact that Harvard and MIT have committed to this sostrongly is a very good thing. I would certainly consider lookingat it,"" McCarthy said.
"But the devil is goingto be in the details. I need to know more about theplatform."" Some critical details of edX remain undecided. For instance, whilethe venture"s courses will be free, the MIT arm will offercredentials - not diplomas, but "MITx""certificates of mastery for individual courses - for a small feelikely to vary depending on students" means. The "HarvardX"" side expects to offer somecertificates but does not know whether it will charge for them.
The venture"s first courses will be free to ensure a wideaudience, said Michael Smith, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Artsand Sciences: "It"s a research environment. We want tobe capturing as much information as we can."" About 120,000 students signed up for the first MITx course,"Circuits and Electronics,"" in March. "The one thing we all had sleepless nights about was, we had120,000 students enroll - how on earth were we going to supportthem?"" said Anant Agarwal, the MIT computer scientistwho will oversee edX, invoking the specter of 120,000 questionsabout a single midterm. But students helped each other, he added,often before teaching assistants could chime in.
Before Wednesday, Stanford University was considered the leadinguniversity in large-scale, free education online. It ran threeengineering courses last fall that drew hundreds of thousands ofstudents. Their success inspired one of the professors who taughtthem to launch a private start-up, Udacity. Two other major for-profit start-ups have launched in the pastmonth.
The Minerva Project aims to offer a full university educationonline for half the tuition of an Ivy League school. Former Harvardpresident Lawrence Summers chairs its advisory board. Ben Nelson,Minerva"s founder, said he welcomed edX because his schoolwould be able to use its free materials. The other start-up, Coursera, is similar to edX, allowing studentsto choose among free courses.
Like Udacity, it is the brainchild ofStanford professors. It launched two weeks ago, featuring classesfrom Stanford, Princeton University, the University of Michigan,and the University of Pennsylvania. Coursera"s founders, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, said theywere glad to see other universities engage in online education. Butthey noted that their current offerings are broader than those ofedX; they include 40 classes.
The Harvard announcement may spur Coursera to try to make moneyquickly off its operation, said Nelson, of Minerva, who does notconsider either edX or Coursera to be his rivals but said they willcompete with each other. "EdX is a direct challenge toCoursera - it"s ‘We looked at them, and we reject thefor-profit model," "" he said. Harvard met with representatives from Coursera and others in recentmonths but decided its own project should be strictlynot-for-profit, according to three sources involved in thediscussions. MIT was a more natural partner for Harvard - the two universitiesalready collaborate on projects such as the Broad Institute, theirjoint biomedical research center.
Harvard said it felt it needed toact quickly, one of the sources there said: "MIT was forgingahead, and we didn"t want to look like we were playingcatch-up."" Harvard already offers several Web-based classes for its students. More than a decade ago, it ran one of the earliest experiments inonline learning: a computer science class for 100 on-campusundergraduates and 17 students who attended from afar. The onlinegroup fared as well as the on-campus one and produced the classstar, a Harvard alumnus from Turkey who aced the final. That example encouraged Harvard"s continuing-education arm,the Extension School, to put more material online. But the rest of Harvard was less receptive.
"I think folks found the idea threatening. They were worriedabout maybe cheapening the Harvard experience,"" saidHenry Leitner, the senior lecturer and associate dean who taughtthe early computer science course. "Also, it was still ageeky thing to do, and high-quality Internet bandwidth was prettyscarce."" Online education is now a juggernaut; nearly a third of currentcollege students have taken at least one Web-based course. "There"s momentum and zeitgeist in thisarea,"" said Kenneth Koedinger, a computer scientistand psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, which has alongstanding research program in online learning. But asked whatwas still unknown about how to teach effectively online, he said,"almost everything."" The edX announcement may meet with skepticism from some faculty,especially humanities professors who doubt the efficacy ofessay-grading computer programs that edX may use.
Coursera"sfounders refused to use the programs in their own courses. Debra Satz, a Stanford philosophy professor, said she had herdoubts. "Maybe a robo-reader could pick out crude markers ofdifference between papers,"" she said, "but Ican"t imagine one looking at an argument about the moralityof consequentialism and assessing the objections toit."" Correspondent Johanna Kaiser contributed to this report. MaryCarmichael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael .
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