EdX: Harvard's New Domain

In the spring, MIT took on 155,000 more students. In two weeks, Harvard could do the same.

edX spread
Ryan P. Kelly

FM Spread 10.04.2012

On May 2, YouTube user “EdXOnline” uploaded a video entitled “edX: The Future of Online Education is Now.” The video, a two and a half minute trailer for the $60 million open source online education platform jointly overseen by Harvard and MIT, hit over 150,000 views within weeks. In the video’s opening statement, L. Rafael Reif, President (then Provost) of MIT describes the project in these terms: “so novel,” “so new,” “so different,”“very exciting,” “very scary,” and “potentially disruptive.” Behind these comments, instrumental music plays—the kind you would expect to inspire a younger generation, and more non-profit anthem than superhero theme song.

The possibly disruptive implications of edX have been of particular interest to media outlets and educational commentators, inspiring evocative headlines like“Online Classes Cut Costs, But Do They Dilute Brands?”(NPR) and “Will edX Put Harvard and MIT Out of Business?” (Forbes). In the five months between the announcement of edX and the launch of the first-ever HarvardX courses in October (CS50x: “Introduction to Computer Science,” and PH207x: “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Heath Research”), the term “MOOC” (massive open online courses) has gained traction in the media and blogosphere. Speculation about whether MOOC-generated textbook sales might provide a vital boost to publishers has occurred alongside philosophical debates over the merits of the traditional four year university.

The edX initiative stands to join the ranks of major MOOCs like Coursera and Udacity. Like its competitors, edX intends to make knowledge available to more people. But unlike these, edX is a not-for-profit, designed with the hopes of acquiring and employing data and research about effective teaching and learning methods. Students of edX will split their class time between watching short lecture modules (around 10 minutes or so in length), performing interactive activities, and asking questions to each other and TFs in online forums.

With the combined prestige of MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, which joined the edX initiative in July, edX will likely have little difficulty attracting students from around the world. Proving that these courses can overcome existing limitations of online education, however, will be a defining challenge. Preserving the prestige and branding of Harvard and MIT will also be a major concern, in addition to figuring out how to prove that HarvardX and MITx are more than just online spinoffs of their on-campus counterparts. “This is not to be construed as MIT Lite or Harvard Lite,” Reif says; whether or not these edX programs will live up to the hype, however, has yet to be seen.

LITE, NOT ENLIGHTENED

Multimedia

edX cover

edX cover

There is a pervasive, even unsettling optimism associated with the concept of open-source knowledge. It is an unexpected optimism, the kind of overflowing exuberance and youthful naivete that 20-somethings espouse in TED talks and the like—the kind that causes the worldly middle-aged to roll their eyes. And it is unexpected because it’s this older generation that is the face of this new optimism at edX, not the young firebrands of the post-Internet Explorer age.

“This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press,” says edX President and MIT professor Anant Agarwal in the aforementioned YouTube video promoting the new platform. “Our goal is to educate a billion people around the world.” These might be the words of a publicist or a speechwriter; and yet they might also be the sentiments of those who are deeply, sincerely hopeful about the progress of education.

It’s an attitude that we’ve seen before, albeit a couple hundred years ago. “One cannot go too far in making the means of acquiring an education as easy as possible,” wrote Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, who, along with Denis Diderot, edited the “Encyclopédie,” a 1751 Enlightenment text that tried to encompass all of human knowledge in order to make it more accessible for more of the public. The 17th and 18th century European intellectual movement might in some ways be seen as a precedent to today’s emerging digital Enlightenment, not least in their epic ambitions.

James T. Engell ’73, an English professor who will teach a General Education course on Enlightenment thought in the spring, notes that Enlightenment thinkers participated in a top-down system of education from the smaller elite to the average citizen, contributing significantly to the dissemination of knowledge. The same structure could be said to apply to edX. “Although the Enlightenment was in a significant way led by people we would call intellectuals who had a high degree of education for the most part, many of them advocated a spread of knowledge to every person possible, and they advocated increased literacy.”

Both then as today, there was the seemingly unlikely confluence of elite support for an ostensibly populist sentiment—one that also found its way into the rise of a fledgling nation of the late Enlightenment: the United States.“George Washington wanted to establish a national university. It was never done, but it was his wish,” says Engell. “His farewell address also contains an interesting section on the need for the diffusion of public knowledge and education...It’s one of the reasons why I think America was able to come into being.” As the first American university, perhaps it’s fitting that Harvard will be a part of realizing and extending Washington’s dream on a greater scale than ever before—creating an internationally accessible university that doesn’t just aggregate information, but innovates in the field of online learning.

Over two centuries later, the pace and scope of progress is rapidly increasing. “I think that what’s happening now is somewhat different in the sense that things that are on the internet are—in general, not always—free for anyone who can access the internet,” says Engell. “Therefore, if you open things up in that manner, anybody in the world is an audience.”

IN REAL TIME

Monika A. Lutz, who will graduate from the Extension School in November 2015, is one of the most passionate members of this audience, the success story of the student who takes advantage of the opportunities of online education—an exception, perhaps. Lutz has completed a semester’s worth of credits, but she first stepped onto the Harvard campus this fall: Over the past two years, Lutz took four online courses from Shanghai, Singapore, and Washington, D.C.

While abroad, Lutz was one of the Harvard Extension School’s nearly 5,000 students who can choose from over 200 online courses, plugging herself into an academic community via the internet. For Lutz, taking courses remotely provided for an even more productive education. Gushing about her “real-time” education, Lutz’s rapid-fire speech matches the pace of the internet generation to which she belongs.

“It’s just-in-time education, just-in-time information; I’m learning what I need to know and immediately applying it.” These distance classes allowed her to explore options, says Lutz, who held internships at Congress, the EU Delegation to the United States, an international pharmaceutical marketing firm, and with a fashion designer during her gap years. Because of this, she knows the concentration she wants to pursue: Government, with a double secondary in Mandarin and International Business.

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