May 2, 2012 - 10:00am / Steve Kolowich
After a whirlwind nine months that has witnessed a rapid rebirth of online education at elite U.S. universities in the form of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, Harvard University has thrown its hat into the ring — along with the largest investment yet in technology aimed at bringing interactive online education to hundreds of thousands of students at a time for free.
Harvard will be piggybacking on MITx, the platform the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed for its own MOOCs, the universities jointly announced on Wednesday. The combined venture will be a nonprofit called edX. [snip].
Like the open courses being developed by MIT, Harvard’s open, online courses will be taught by the same professors who preside over the classroom versions. And, just as officials have indicated with regards to MITx, “Certificates of mastery will be available for those motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material,” the universities said in a release.
The EdX platform will be open-source, “so it can be used by other universities and organizations who wish to host the platform themselves,” according to the release. While EdX will initially host adapted versions of courses from MIT and Harvard, the institutions expect it to become a clearinghouse for open courses offered by various institutions.
Harvard and MIT say one of their main goals with edX is to generate learning data that it can share freely with education researchers. The MITx platform, which will serve as the platform for edX, “Already has a lot of mechanisms for understanding how students are learning," said Anant Agarwal, a computer science and engineering professor at MIT and the first president of edX. [snip].
In a subtle swipe at the proprietary companies that have also built platforms through which top-tier universities can run MOOCs, L. Rafael Reif, the MIT provost, suggested that the ethic of transparency and public-mindedness Harvard and MIT bring to the table will make edX a more generous and responsible curator of the learning data that MOOC platforms will accumulate.
The recent, aggressive movement of the name-brand institutions into free, massive versions of their vaunted courses has kindled discussions about the future of face-to-face education as the free, online options become more sophisticated and creditable.
The universities' vaunted courses via the Web will in some ways open the gates to learning opportunities that historically have been the exclusive privilege of tuition-paying students, said Drew Faust, the Harvard president. "It is, however, what will happen on our campuses that will truly distinguish edX," she said.
“We will learn more about learning," said Faust. "We will refine proven teaching methods and develop new approaches that take full advantage of established and emerging technologies” in order to improve teaching on the residential campus.