MIT, Harvard team up to offer free, online courses

Call it the 'Ivy League Spring': MIT announces it is extending its open, online global classroom platform to Harvard. The new model will also be open for other universities as well.

Call it the 'Ivy League Spring': the disruption of higher education by the Internet is opening up learning at the most prestigious institutions for the world to experience.

At the end of last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had announced a new, Web-based learning platform, called MITx, with which it would offer free online courses to anyone in the world. Now, MIT says it is extending its MITx model to its next-door neighbor, Harvard University. The new platform, called edX, will enable the two institutions will collaborate, not only to build a global classroom, but also enhance campus-based teaching.  The first MITx course, "Circuits and Electronics," commenced in March with 90,000 people signed up.

"Online education will change the world," said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and co-creator of MITx. "In the prototype course that we're offering, the number of students around the world that are taking it is insane -- 120,000 students around the world."

Online, Web-based education enables anyone, anywhere in the world to access top-tier educational opportunities without leaving their communities. In addition, at a time when traditional tuition and educational costs are severely bloated and out of reach of many potential students, a new low-cost Web-based model is emerging in which individuals may assemble their own educational opportunities.

Or, as John Reed, chairman of the MIT foundation recently described the phenomenon: online, global learning “is the equivalent of the Protestant reformation. You are taking the priests out of the temple, translating the Bible so people are reading it themselves.”

EdX will build on both universities’ experience in offering online instructional content. MITx was designed to offer online versions of MIT courses featuring video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories and student-paced learning. Certificates of mastery will be available for those who are motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material.

The universities will work to develop further the online learning platform already begun with MITx and to populate the edX website with courses from the MIT and Harvard faculty. During the early stages, the two universities will work cooperatively to offer as broad an initial set of courses as possible. A first set of courses is scheduled to be announced in early summer and to start in fall 2012.

The initiative will be overseen by a not-for-profit organization based in Cambridge, Mass., to be owned and governed equally by the two universities. MIT and Harvard have committed to a combined $60 million ($30 million each) in institutional support, grants and philanthropy to launch the collaboration.

MIT and Harvard expect that over time other universities will join them in offering courses on the edX platform. 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 website, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities.

EdX will release its learning platform as open-source software so it can be used by other universities and organizations that wish to host the platform themselves. Because the learning technology will be available as open-source software, other universities and individuals will be able to help edX improve and add features to the technology.

"Modern technology such as the Internet, cloud computing and machine learning are really coming together to allow us to offer education on a massive scale around the world," Agarwal said.

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