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Harvard and MIT presidents Drew Faust and Susan Hockfield today announced EdX, a nonprofit joint venture that will offer online courses to the general public while investigating technologies for improving both distance learning and campus-based education. Appropriately, given the nature of the venture, the presidents’ event inaugurating EdX was streamed live to online viewers.

According to officials from the two institutions, EdX will enable them to address rapidly evolving education technologies more quickly, and with a broader, deeper research agenda, than either could alone. From Harvard’s perspective, using the MITx online course platform—which has 120,000 participants enrolled in its first course, 6.002x, “Circuits and Electronics”—markedly accelerates the University’s entry into large-scale distance learning of this sort.

Highlights of the EdX venture include:

  • A Cambridge-based nonprofit organization, owned and governed equally by Harvard and MIT, each of which is committing $30 million in institutional funds, grants, and philanthropic gifts to capitalize the venture. (The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, now a stand-alone genomics-research center, was similarly inaugurated as a joint venture, with philanthropic support in the hundreds of millions of dollars, in 2003.)
  • The MITx technology, initially designed to offer noncredit, online versions of MIT courses, incorporating video lessons, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback on student work, online laboratories, and student-paced learning; this platform will be “open-source” software available to other institutions, which will be able to contribute to its development and to add features.
  • Beginning in the fall of 2012, individually branded, noncredit courses offered by each institution—identified as Harvardx and MITx products—with similar identification offered to other institutions that join the venture as it develops, under the EdX parent. (The news announcement describes a “gathering of many universities’ educational content together on one site [that] will enable  learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university” using a common set of online tools.)
  • “Certificates of mastery” for motivated students who wish to demonstrate their knowledge of course content.

In a news release, Hockfield called EdX “a unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new educational path for millions of learners worldwide.” Faust focused on the “unprecedented opportunity to dramatically extend our collective reach by conducting groundbreaking research into effective education and by extending online access to higher quality education…in a way that benefits our students, our peers, and people across the nation and the globe.”

For Harvard, the venture follows several low-cost, low-profile online-education ventures aimed at alumni, in parallel with a growing fee-based program of courses offered through the Extension School (see “Earlier Online Efforts, and Peer Offerings,” below.)

Finding Common Interests

In a briefing on the venture, Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory—who led development of the MITx system, and will serve as EdX president—described both the underlying technologies and the educational imperatives propelling the venture forward. Online courses serving massive, diverse, distant student bodies, he said, were enabled by the melding of the Internet with “cloud” technologies, making access to courses essentially universal on desktop computers and handheld devices. Specific applications—such as online “laboratories” where students could, for instance, build circuits as if assembling components like virtual Legos—reflected programming for massive online games. Assessments—quizzes and grading—were widespread for straightforward, technical questions, he said. Creating more complex forms of assessment—evaluating open-ended questions requiring paragraph or essay answers—pointed to one of the basic rationales for EdX: to foster research on learning, teaching, and evaluation, online and in the classroom.

Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at Harvard, emphasized that EdX was not an enterprise for automating campus-based courses and disseminating them online. Rather, he placed it in the context of HILT, the University’s larger initiative on learning and teaching (announced last October, with a $40-million founding gift); expanding interest among FAS professors in rethinking teaching and classrooms, in part by experimenting with technology; extensive online offerings in Harvard’s professional schools; and the sheer pace of change in such technologies. (Harvard’s engagement with EdX is under the direction of Provost Alan Garber, with Smith—a computer scientist—playing a leading role in working with faculty members to develop and deliver courses.)

Research, Smith said, is a “big part of what we will be doing”—determining how education will occur in the future, online and on campus. EdX, he said, provides a focal point for all these efforts; aligns Harvard’s research interests with MIT’s; and promises “huge impact” on education and interested learners around the world.

The Harvard-MIT joint venture took shape in discussions during the past several months, Garber indicated. Both institutions are driven by their interest in using new technology “to strengthen, enrich, and augment the residential, campus model,” said MIT provost L. Rafael Reif, who oversaw development of MITx. Each institution, Agarwal said, brought a strong commitment to research on learning and education, open-source software, improving both classroom and online experiences, and the nonprofit status of the venture. 

Reif called MITx “a living platform,” both delivering courses and driving extensive research on “how learners learn online”—a critical priority for all of higher education. Garber amplified, noting that such inquiries provided an “opportunity to rethink how we approach education fundamentally.” Online courses and tools, he said, offer “measurement capabilities that we’ve never had before.” Educators can see how a student engages with a video, rewinds it, takes a test, and so on. With a large student population in the circuits course and online testing protocols, Reif said, MIT was already administering different versions of tests—making it possible to  derive statistically significant data on, say, how well students mastered material and how accurately tests captured that learning.

Garber characterized as “a deep question” how such experiments and lessons might, in turn, inform and improve campus-based classes. Faculty groups at Harvard, he said, are already working to determine how to measure learning and teaching effectiveness. The right criteria and tools, he said, will be determined by faculty members themselves. Similarly, Reif said, broader course offerings through EdX would help faculty members determine what elements of online learning and technology work best in what disciplines, with what applications—if any—in residential education.

Earlier Online Efforts, and Peer Offerings

Harvard has been relatively cautious in its online offerings, at least compared to alumni demand for such access to the University’s educational resources. Beginning in 2001, Harvard@Home—encouraged by the Harvard Alumni Association—offered versions of lectures, occasional courses, and coverage of major University news events. But the effort was largely felled by cost pressures late in the decade, and by the evolution toward cheaper, shorter videos. A test case of a full course, based on Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel’s popular “Justice” (a long-running undergraduate Core and General Education class), proved popular worldwide when released in video form in 2007, but was expensive to produce and distribute.

This past March, FAS blended approaches, unveiling “Harvard’s Great Teachers,” mixing shorter videos with hour-long lectures, initially highlighting the work of four faculty members (with more to be released at regular intervals in coming years).

The Extension School, which charges students for its offerings, now has more than 150 online classes, spanning disciplines—probably the most extensive repository of distance-education teaching and learning throughout the University.

During the height of the dot.com bubble at the turn of the century, several universities experimented with fee-based online courses. One of the most ambitious programs, AllLearn—a partnership among Oxford, Yale, and Stanford, chartered in 2001—initially focused on alumni subscribers, but opened enrollment to anyone the following year. It closed for financial reasons in 2006. Fathom, which involved Columbia, the London School of Economics, the universities of Chicago and Michigan, and several leading libraries and museums, also shut down.

The foundation-funded Open Yale Courses now provides several dozen introductory liberal-arts courses online, for free.

MIT launched OpenCourseWare a decade ago, making course materials for essentially its entire curriculum available online. MIT notes that 100 million users have accessed materials from some 2,000 courses.

A 2011 online course, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence,” created at Stanford, became a worldwide sensation, enrolling 160,000 students worldwide. Following that proof of concept, a for-profit enterprise, Udacity, Inc., now aims to make such courses a regular enterprise; it is offering six courses at present.

MITx, unveiled last December and aimed at experimenting with courses designed specifically for online instruction, embedded that kind of online instruction in a major research institution. With the foundation of EdX, MIT and Harvard are now joining forces in nonprofit, experimental online education on an unprecedented scale.

The EdX Agenda

Agarwal phrased the core issue as “How exactly do we reinvent education for our campuses?” The impact of new technologies, he said, was as consequential as the invention of the printing press. A pilot group of 20 students taking an online class had recently brainstormed with the course developers on how to improve a conventional class. Given that many students opt not to attend lectures, he said, they were exploring an upside-down class model: students would take in videos and exercises on their own schedules before a scheduled class meeting, and then come together to do laboratories, one-to-one projects, and small group exercises, interacting with professors and teaching assistances as apprentices did in earlier eras.

Smith cited examples of this kind of work under way not only in courses taught by Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics Eric Mazur—a pioneer in moving beyond conventional lectures—and in the popular Computer Science 50, led by David Malan, senior lecturer on computer science and director of educational innovation, but also in the social sciences, in digital humanities (the subject of Harvard Magazine’s current cover story), and in other disciplines.

MITx courses, like those offered for the past decade through that institution’s extensive OpenCourseWare program, are free for any student; there is a fee for certificates of mastery. At MIT, Reif said, faculty members develop such online courses as part of their regular employment; he was not prepared to address comprehensively how issues of course ownership might evolve. The MITx platform is offered to faculty members for their use, but on an entirely voluntary basis.

Garber said that Harvard’s position on such issues mirrored MIT’s. EdX and the technology platform are available for faculty members’ voluntary participation. (In past discussions of online education, faculty members have asserted their ownership of course materials they develop for their Harvard teaching.) He expected that Harvardx would include free courses; but professional schools, which already offer fee-based online courses, will be allowed to use the platform to distribute them on a fee basis if they wish to do so. Dean Smith indicated that the Extension School, which offers dozens of courses online on a tuition basis, serving nontraditional students, will continue to do so; in the future, if it wishes to migrate to the EdX platform, it may do so.

FAS’s Smith said that although the announcement signaled just the beginning of a potentially major enterprise, it was “incredibly important” for the educational mission. Identifying important questions and advancing educational objectives, he and Garber said, now depend on building on faculty members’ interest and involving them in EdX’s evolution.