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Wellesley To Join EdX

By Radhika Jain and Sabrina A. Mohamed, Crimson Staff Writers


EdX, an online educational platform launched by Harvard and MIT in May, announced Tuesday that Wellesley College will be the first liberal arts institution to partner with the virtual learning venture.

“Wellesley is ready to contribute our liberal arts perspective to help shape online education, particularly as colleges work to figure out how to bring the small classroom experience to the online learning landscape,” said Wellesley President H. Kim Bottomly. “We are convinced that Wellesley and its outstanding faculty have the creativity and vision to take on this challenge.”

WellesleyX, Wellesley’s subset of edX, hopes to simulate the school’s characteristic style of instruction, which emphasizes close relationships between faculty members and students as well as active discussion-based learning. Given an online environment that has already seen enrollments in the hundreds of thousands, Wellesley faculty agreed that this kind of personalized pedagogy will be the college’s most important contribution to edX.

“The challenge for Wellesley will be to figure out how to structure an online learning environment that allows for the kind of productive inefficiency that we see in a small seminar classroom,” said Adam P. Van Arsdale, an anthropology professor.

Barry Lydgate, chair of Wellesley’s French department, said that the school will have to figure out how to scale their approach to learning.

“The small-scale learning—the intensive mentoring that we do—those things can seem paradoxical in the context of online learning,” Lydgate said. “We still have to figure out if this thing will be scalable.”

Lydgate has already submitted his course on French language and culture to be considered for WellesleyX.

Although Wellesley previously considered exploring online education through for-profit platforms, Lydgate said the college ultimately decided to join edX because of its influence and scope.

“Given the prestige of Harvard and MIT, I think it was kind of a no-brainer for the college,” he said. “I think the administration feels that online learning is the wave of the future.”

EdX President Anant Agarwal said this partnership will “encourage new innovations” in edX online learning technologies to integrate important aspects of humanity courses, such as small discussion forums and feedback on written work.

First announced last May and financed by $30 million investments by both Harvard and MIT, edX grants anyone with a computer free access to a range of courses offered by participating universities. In the last six months, these have grown to include Harvard, MIT, University of California, Berkeley, theUniversity of Texas school system, Bunker Hill Community College, and MassBay Community College. Wellesley is the first women’s college to join.

‘Wellesley has always been unafraid of hosting education initiatives,” said Provost and Dean of Wellesley College Andrew Shennan. “I see some continuity between the founding mission of Wellesley College and the idea that this new technology can bring information to audiences around the country and the world.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith echoed Shennan’s enthusiasm for the new partnership.

“As the first small liberal arts institution to join edX, Wellesley demonstrates that interest in this endeavor is not limited to large research universities like Harvard and MIT,” he said. “Instead, it points to the diversity of partner colleges and universities, today and in the future.”

EdX currently offers nine classes, six of which are in computer science. While Wellesley’s course offerings have yet to be finalized, the college will most likely offer four that draw from topics in the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences, according to Van Arsdale. Lydgate said that faculty from across Wellesley were encouraged by the provost to submit course proposals.

In addition to expanding accessibility to top-quality higher education programs, edX hopes to use data collected from the thousands of virtual enrollees to study and enhance in-person pedagogical methods at each university.

“A blended classroom can be significantly better in quality to a traditional online classroom,” Agarwal said, for reasons such as encouraging active learning and providing instant feedback to students.

Van Arsdale is confident that other liberal arts colleges will follow Wellesley’s example. “Wellesley might be the first, but I’m sure it won’t be the last,” he said.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at

—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at

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