Beginning this fall, several classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University will be available for free online, thanks to a joint non-profit venture announced today by the two Cambridge, Massachusetts-based universities. Harvard and MIT will each kick in US$30 million to launch the non-profit, called edX, which has developed an open-source platform for online education.
“Modern technology such as the Internet, cloud computing, machine learning and so on are coming together to make it possible for us to offer online education on a massive scale around the world,” said Anant Agarwal (pictured), an electrical-engineering professor at MIT who will head up the new initiative.
The courses will be in a range of disciplines, from the humanities to the social and natural sciences, and will include video lectures, quizzes and automated grading, online labs, student-discussion forums and certificates for students who complete and pass the courses.
Officials from the two schools, which will jointly own and run edX, say that they hope that other universities will join them in offering their courses on the same platform.
“What we’re seeing here is a tipping point” in online university education, says Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. EdX is part of a fast-growing trend of universities, such as Stanford University in California and the University of Texas, that are joining up to develop online courses. DeMillo says that he has been surprised at how quickly universities have made quality courses available online over the past five years.
At a press conference today, packed with MIT computer-science students snacking on free pastries, Harvard president Drew Faust and MIT president Susan Hockfield took pains to emphasize that online courses wouldn’t take away from conventional on-campus education, but would enhance it. One the goals of edX is to further research on education, by, for example, developing new online tools that can be used by on-campus students. Such tools could enable personalized learning and online collaboration between students.
MIT is already collecting data on how students learn online, through its prototype online course, 6.002x, or “Circuits and Electronics”, which began in March and had a whopping 120,000 students from around the world register.
Agarwal teaches the course and said that developing it wasn’t much more work than creating a new classroom course, although he’s put in extra hours to work out the kinks in the prototype course and admits to being overwhelmed by e-mails from his thousands of students.
EdX officials were vague today about how the non-profit would sustain itself financially. The philosophy of edX is to offer courses for free, said Agarwal, but officials are still figuring how to generate revenue. Options include charging for certificates, or offering premium courses for a fee. DeMillo says that there are enough plausible revenue streams that coming up with a business model for online education shouldn’t be too difficult.
Photo credit: M. Scott Brauer