Harvard, MIT Online Learning Portal to Help Web, Classroom Learning

But students will not be able to earn degrees from either school by completing online courses

By Fred O'Connor
Wed, May 02, 2012

IDG News Service (Boston Bureau) — An online education organization backed and funded by MIT and Harvard University will use open-source technology to offer free classes over the Internet, the two schools announced Wednesday at a press conference.

Admission will be open to anyone in the world who is connected to the Web, and classes will start in the fall, they said. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are investing a combined US$60 million in the collaboration.

Called edX, the nonprofit organization will work on the Web-based platform that will deliver the content. Harvard and MIT will equally own and operate the venture, which will be located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where both are based. The technology running edX is based on an online learning platform MIT launched in December called MITx.

EdX will initially offer Harvard and MIT courses, which will appear in specific portfolios for each institution. Over time the organization hopes to include material from other universities and allow other schools to add features to the platform, a process that will be aided by making edX's technology open.

"We will open source all our software to the world so that anybody else can take that platform and use it anywhere they want," said Anant Agarwal, president of edX and director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. EdX staff will help schools that want to offer content on the platform, he added. The specific staffing needs are still being determined.

The platform's emphasis on Web-based learning will differentiate it from other online offerings, according to speakers at the press conference, which was also webcast. EdX aims to offer a more interactive experience that goes beyond video instruction. While videos will be offered, students can also take quizzes, participate in online labs and communicate with other students and teachers, among other features, said Agarwal.

Saying that edX is "genuinely an experiment," MIT President Susan Hockfield noted that there is strong interest in Web education. A prototype course the school offered on MITx in the spring drew almost as many registrants as the number of living MIT alumni.

Some in higher education may view online education as a threat to traditional campus learning, but Hockfield said that edX should be viewed as an ally.

To that extent, edX will make the data gathered from its online platform available to MIT and Harvard researchers with the aim of bettering classroom and online learning.

EdX offers "an unprecedented opportunity to understand how we learn," said Harvard Provost Alan Garber, who will lead the university's online portfolio, HarvardX. "It's about learning how to use the classroom more effectively."

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