Let EdX Grow

Free online education holds promise for the future of higher education

A little over a year ago, Harvard University made an unprecedented announcement that presented a stark challenge to those who would color it as a bastion of exclusivity and elitism. The announcement was of the creation of edX, a series of massive open online courses—commonly called MOOCs—offered in conjunction with Harvard’s Kendall Square neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. EdX seeks to use open source software to provide online education to thousands of students across the world, free of charge. We have been highly supportive of this ambitious proposal from the start, and the program’s inaugural year has only made us more optimistic about the role Harvard will play in the future of accessible higher education. Last semester, edX expanded to partner with local community colleges in an effort to broaden its reach. This past week, edX added 15 course-offering schools across the globe, including six in Asia, three in Europe, and one in Australia.

This recent development has brought the program’s member count to 27, a number that seems to be in the process of perpetual growth. We are heartened by the efforts Harvard has taken to be at the vanguard of groundbreaking online pedagogy and are excited at the next steps in innovation undoubtedly still to come. Occasional news of faculty opposition to the program—at Harvard as well as Amherst College and San Jose State—while perhaps understandable, is ultimately unfortunate and has the potential to contravene must-needed ingenuity in the field of higher education.

The scale of edX as an institutional commitment can hardly be overstated. Harvard and MIT each invested $30 million into the program, a necessary sum to provide free coursework to students across the world. It is no great secret that higher education is increasingly becoming prohibitively expensive, a disastrous trend considering the amount of employers that now require college degrees. As a result, young adults are entering the workforce up to their knees in student loans to be repaid, with young adults reporting a median debt of an eye-popping $38,100.  That edX offers students the option of obtaining a certificate of mastery upon course completion could be a game changer, opening up job opportunities to the underserved individuals that had been previously unable to attain a college-level education.

Harvard and MIT proved their commitment to this end by welcoming two local community colleges to the program. This culture of inclusivity not only serves to enlarge the number of students with access to higher learning, but it also leads to the enrichment of didacticism as an art form and as a product in constant development. For example, the addition of Bunker Hill Community College and MassBay Community College was concomitant with the combination of virtual and in-person learning as an element in the program. Furthermore, a recent New Yorker profile of edX discusses the necessary modifications that come with transferring traditional lecture hall coursework and subsequent evaluation to an online medium, which include discussion forums, Google Doc-like paper annotation, and multiple-choice quizzes. The future of higher education is still up in the air, and we appreciate any and all experimental efforts to come up with the best possible regiment for the next generations of students.

It is clear that higher education is at a turning point and that the present model, which prices a large chunk of the populace out of a traditional campus education, is unsustainable in the long run. So far the market solution to the problem of high costs and limited enrollment has been for-profit universities, largely predatory institutions that capitalize off federal loan programs and feel little remorse when their usually low-income students default on those massive loans. Thus, the addition of widely available low-cost education should be a welcome antidote to this toxic nostrum.

While edX and the other MOOC offerings in the nation are certainly not in their final or perfect forms, their desire to experiment with providing universal access to scholarship is one that must be commended. Thus, letters like the one just signed by 58 Faculty of Arts & Sciences professors are worrisome. While we sympathize with the signatories’ desire to clarify “ethical and educational principles” as they pertain to edX, we should resist any move toward faculty oversight of the edX program, which would only serve to add more hierarchical bureaucracy to what, in its ideal form, should be egalitarian and democratic. It is not difficult to surmise the fears of these professors, who likely worry that the quality of higher education will be significantly debased by presenting it in a format amenable to mass-consumption. Others, such as the critics at Amherst fear that the program militates against the very goals of a “a purposefully small residential community.” Criticism that online-only education diminishes a crucial in-person aspect to tutelage is neither new nor unwarranted. However, the establishment of faculty oversight is not the solution. Such a move could put needless bureaucratic strictures on a program that needs to be nimble and adaptable.

Unsurprisingly, professors at many institutions outside of the edX consortium have expressed fears that MOOCs will replace in-person instruction almost entirely.  In an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the Philosophy Department of San Jose State University wrote that MOOCs might eventually reduce professors to mere “glorified teaching assistant[s].” Yet these fears are overblown. Scholars who create new, valuable knowledge will always have a place in academia. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that society will be, on the whole, worse off by increasing access to top-notch educational resources. When one weighs the concerns of the San Jose State faculty against the numerous benefits that edX provides—largely to underprivileged students—it is clear that the program presents a net gain.

It is altogether possible, and certainly desirable that, further down the road, the online platform may benefit from the input and insight of the FAS and other faculty organizations. But in the short run, it would be unwise to place edX under a governing body that has an interest in restraining the growth of MOOCs.  The potential for online education remains relatively unexplored, so platforms like edX require, at minimum, an incubator period in which to expand, change, make progress, and make mistakes that eventually lead to advancement and refinement.  Reacting too quickly to faculty concerns about edX while it is still in its infancy may cut this period of maturation short, limiting its potential growth and impact.  We hope that Harvard will continue to nurture the process of innovation in the promising field of online education.

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