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Harvard, MIT Partner To Provide Free Courses Through edX

Harvard University and MIT have partnered to launch edX, an initiative to offer free online courses worldwide and develop an open source platform to deliver them.

"Beginning this fall an array of courses developed by faculty at both of our institutions will be made available online through edX," said Harvard President Drew Faust in a press conference announcing the project. "Anyone with an Internet connection any where in the world can have access."

The platform developed for MITx, an initiative launched early this year to offer free MIT courses online, will serve as the joint venture's foundation. MITx courses feature "video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories, and student-paced learning," according to information released by the universities.

The MITx platform is open source and scalable so that other higher education institutions and K-12 schools can use and adapt it to their own needs, and the same will be true of the technology used by the new joint initiative.

In a similar vein, "MIT and Harvard expect that over time other universities will join them in offering courses on the edX platform," according to information in a news release from the schools. "The gathering of many universities' educational content together on one site will enable learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university from a single Web site, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities."

The institutions will also use the platform to research online learning and teaching.

"One of the key goals of the effort, of edX, is not just to develop the platform, but also to do research in two areas," said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, during a press conference. "One is research in the technologies that will enable us to offer much better online education," such as tools "for allowing students to collaborate in a much better manner, technologies for personalized learning," and "ideas and ways in which to get people around the world to help with grading and working together on free form questions and so on."

"A second class of research involves understanding how people learn," Agarwal, who has been a leader on the project, continued. "How are people learning? Can we do better? What things work? What things do not work?"

Agarwal explained that the platform "already has a lot of mechanisms for understanding how students learn," such as an ability to gather data on how much time they spend "on various videos and exercises, what do they go back to," and "mechanisms for A/B testing where different students can get slightly different experiences."

"This is big data in its biggest form," Agarwal said. "So all of this data will be available to researchers at MIT and Harvard and other collaborators around the world to understand how people really learn and then we can help synthesize a better educational experience."

Students at Harvard and MIT will not be able to take the courses for credit, and although edX students will be able to earn certificates of completion for demonstrating mastery, those certificates "will not be issued under the name of Harvard or MIT," according to information released by the universities.

The effort will also be separate from other distance education projects at the two schools and is not intended as a true alternative to brick and mortar classrooms.

"The campus environment offers opportunities and experiences that cannot be replicated online," said Susan Hockfield, president at MIT. "EdX is designed to improve, not replace, the campus experience."

MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif will serve as the first president of edX, which is being funded by $30 million commitments from each school.

"We are already moving forward quickly," Agarwal said. "There's a lot of energy in the air, and the teams at Harvard and MIT can't wait to collaborate."

Visit edxonline.org for more information. Answers to common questions about the initiative and a short video are also available at web.mit.edu.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].