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Gone are the days when it took a perfectly polished resume and an acceptance letter to gain access to the courses of Harvard’s most esteemed professors.

Earlier this month, Harvard University President Drew G. Faust stood beside Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield at a packed press conference to announce the creation of edX—an online learning platform that will allow students from around the world to take virtual courses from the two institutions for free.

“Today’s announcement opens the possibility for transformation through education to learners around the globe,” Faust said. “[EdX is] a partnership that will change our relationship to knowledge and learning.”

The announcement grabbed the attention of the national media and prompted a bevy of predictions of radical change in the world of higher education.

“Welcome to the college education revolution,” columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote in The New York Times two weeks after the announcement. “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”

But edX is only the latest development in series of moves by universities across the nation to expand the presence of higher education online.

Since 2007, Yale University has offered people around the world the chance to take courses at no cost through Open Yale Courses. Earlier this year, Stanford University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan launched their own free online courses through Coursera, a for-profit education startup.

While many in the media and higher education speculate about edX’s potential to democratize education, technology and teaching experts say that the significance of the new portal lies beyond the fact that it allows elite institutions to offer free courses to the masses.

For them, edX represents an opportunity to advance pedagogy by encouraging research and collaboration between institutions of higher learning, with the support of the influential Harvard and MIT brands.

DEMOCRATIZING THE BRAND?

While virtual learning is nothing new, edX has inspired buzz due to the prestige associated with Harvard and MIT.

“Harvard has a terrific brand; it has a wonderful tradition,” said Ilona E. Holland, a lecturer on technology, innovation, and education at the Graduate School of Education. “When there’s a partnership between two tremendously successful entities, that gathers remarkable attention.”

Students who may be skeptical about the academic merits of taking courses online would likely have some of their anxieties alleviated by the power of the institutions behind edX.

“By calling it HarvardX or MITx, you’re saying that this will be close to the experience of taking a course at MIT,” said Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor who will serve as the first president of edX. “They include all the qualities, the difficulty levels, the pedagogy, and all the idiosyncrasies of what makes a quintessential Harvard course or an MIT course.”

Agarwal expects a wide range of people to enroll in edX courses, from high school students looking for an alternative to Advanced Placement credit to adults hoping to further their education to college students aiming to bolster their learning experience.

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