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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.
“It really gives the opportunity to democratize our education and make it available as a public good,” Agarwal said.
And the attractiveness of an online education offered by a top-tier institution has been proven by the attention garnered by MITx—the platform that preceded and laid the foundation for the creation of edX. The program has had 120,000 students enroll since it debuted in February.
According to Agarwal, a program like MITx or edX markets itself.
“We launched this course and put it up on a couple of websites, and that’s it,” Agarwal said of the marketing strategy for the first course offered by MITx.
The strength of the Harvard and MIT brands also comes across in the excitement over the certificates of mastery that edX will offer upon the completion of some courses. Whereas most other online education platforms offer no university-issued recognition of completion, edX certificates will bear the name of their parent institution—Harvardx or MITx.
These single-course diplomas could play an important role for students looking to impress a potential employer or improve their odds of admission to a top college, Agarwal said. According to Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, Harvard faculty have yet to decide which courses will offer certificates.
But experts insist that even with the Harvard name attached, certificates of mastery will in no way be comparable to a degree.
“A certificate is very different from a four-year degree. The actual deliverable, the actual product, is very, very different,” said Holland.
Because of this distinction, experts said they believe that the offering of free online Harvard classes will not make traditional acceptance to the University any less prestigious. In fact, they said that the potentially widespread reach of virtual courses might only increase Harvard’s name recognition.
While Harvard has touted edX’s ability to reach new audiences, the University also has worked to make the program a paradigm of innovation in other ways.
While online education is far from novel, experts say that Harvard’s will be the first to realize such a platform’s research potential.
One of edX’s strength lies in its ability to not only educate students but also to provide universities with the knowledge necessary to critique themselves and improve their teaching.
Among the many research projects envisioned for edX, scholars might track students’ patterns of watching and rewinding lecture videos or examine correlations between the study methods students choose and their later scores on tests.
“As we do this, we’re going to be collecting enormous amounts of information about how people learn, which kind of assessments work, who signs on. How do people learn differently in India from the way they learn in China and Cambridge?” Faust said.
Steve Hargadon, founder of the education website Classroom 2.0, said, “This is going to be a learning opportunity not only for the students, but for the universities.”
Institutions will be able to collect and analyze enormous amounts of data in a way that has never been done before.
“The research opportunities are just tremendous. That’s what’s really novel,” said Garber.
According to Garber, the information collected from edX will be available to researchers worldwide.
Faust emphasized that this data would improve learning for Harvard students and learners around the world. Professors who put their courses on edX will have access to information about how students learned in their courses, while researchers will be able to examine methods of teaching on a broader scale.
As Martha Stone Wiske, an Ed School lecturer on technology, innovation, and education, sees it, edX “both benefits the education of the elite while at the same time increasing access to quality education for a much broader audience.”
Many of the details surrounding what the program will look like when it launches this fall have not yet been determined. This, however, said Garber, is part of what makes the program most exciting.
“As you can detect, there’s a lot of questions that are unanswered as of today. That’s deliberate,” Garber said when edX was announced. “We need our faculty to be deeply engaged in the shaping of Harvardx.”
The excitement is bubbling despite the fact that MIT and Harvard have yet to disclose many specifics about the platform.
“It’s difficult to know how innovative the online courses are going to be. Before all of that is determined, any excitement about the program is premature,” said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Ed School.
But hopes are as high as could be. As MIT and Harvard look to take advantage of the untapped potential of online education, the platform represents a chance for the universities to reaffirm their preeminent positions in the world of higher education.
“Online technology could have the same impact on education as the printing press,” Agarwal said.
—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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