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EdX: Expanding Education Beyond the American University

By Kristina D. Lorch and Conor J. Reilley, Crimson Staff Writers

In May 2012, faculty from Harvard University and MIT teamed up to create a massive open online course (MOOC) platform for students and institutions of higher education alike. But unlike its for-profit MOOC peers Coursera and Udacity, edX—the new venture—was guided by more academic, pedagogical goals. By making its source code accessible to the public and licensing the distribution rights to its software, edX now allows participating institutions to adopt its platform for their own use and improve the existing code—for free.

Today, edX boasts 1.6 million users from around the world and provides courses from some of the world’s best educational institutions spanning fields from biology and computer science to literature and music.

According to its website, edX bases its mission on a three-part philosophy—expanding universal access to education, enhancing teaching and learning both on campus and online, and advancing teaching and learning through research.

“This is about experimentation; it’s about research; it’s about rethinking education,” said Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 last May, when the initial partnership between Harvard and MIT was announced.

Although conceived by two elite American institutions of higher education, edX has quickly established a global footprint among not only college students, but also working adults and high-schoolers looking to supplement their formal degrees.

As edX continues to expand its presence overseas and partners with an increasingly diverse array of non-educational institutions, professors and students agree on the initiative’s international significance but say its precise impact on the landscape of higher education remains uncertain.

MOVING QUICKLY

What began as a single course on circuits and electronics two years ago has rapidly expanded to a consortium of 30 partner institutions. Although initially, edX’s new partnerships were based solely in the United States, over a dozen foreign institutions have embraced the online learning initiative since February, and both the Chinese and French governments have separately announced the creation of online education portals powered by edX for campuses in their home countries.

With 17 international partners, the edX consortium today boasts a presence in countries spanning North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.

Perhaps just as striking as the increasingly international profile of edX is its increasing number of partnerships with institutions not associated with higher education that have been announced in the past few months.

The International Monetary Fund announced in June that it would be using edX’s open source platform to allow governments and the public to take training courses in economics and finance.

LinkedIn, a professional networking site, also announced in November that it would be partnering with edX and other leaders in online education to allow LinkedIn users to add their certifications or other completed coursework to their LinkedIn profiles.

Most recently, edX announced a new collaboration with Davidson College and the College Board to create online modules for high school students in Advanced Placement classes.

Some professors say that it is too early to tell whether most of these initiatives will have a significant impact on new modes of teaching or on the direction of edX itself.

“It’s too early to say,” said Chinese history professor Peter K. Bol, Harvard’s Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, about the impact of edX’s most recent partnerships. “Things have been moving very quickly.”

BLENDING MODELS

While edX has taken a number of different approaches to expanding its scope online and at a domestic level, perhaps its most significant growth has been through its international presence.

As of December, 71 percent of edX students come from outside the United States, and nearly half of all students are from developing countries, according to information sent by an edX associate director of communications. Among non-U.S. countries, India leads the pack with 12 percent of enrollments.

Part of the reason for the growing popularity of online education worldwide may be the universal applicability of a learning model that blends both virtual and in-person elements.

“Student outcomes are better when students work with teachers in a blended setting on campus,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. Because of this phenomenon, “the blended educational model is really mushrooming” in the campus education setting, Agarwal added.

Paul Francis, astrophysics professor at Australian National University, first introduced online elements to his classroom two years ago by requiring students to use webcasts to check their work. According to Francis, the percentage of students who completed their work in the 300-person class rose from four percent to 60 percent that year.

“Online learning has been more effective for us than face-to-face learning,” Francis said. Francis added that younger students may have a different way of learning, which can be difficult for academics his age to appreciate or fully understand.

This February, ANU officially announced its participation in the edX consortium, and Francis’s astrophysics class will be one of two new courses offered on the platform for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Given the success of his decision to implement webcasts in the classroom, Francis and his colleagues decided to make the move to edX in order to further explore the possibilities of online education applied in the classroom.

“We felt we should be more involved in this new online space,” said Francis.  “[edX is] a good match.  We’re using edX as an experiment, and they’re using us.  It goes both ways.”

ANU’s reformatted astrophysics course will have the added benefit of reaching a wider target audience. Besides on-campus students, anyone who is curious in the subject will be able to take the course for free.

“Students can get a real academic summer learning experience from the beach if they like,” said Francis.

The university will also launch an online summer program experimenting with the new “blended” model of learning. Participating students will take six weeks of online modules before spending one week of intensive in-class study in-person on the ANU campus.

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

EdX, however, is expanding not just geographically. As it grows its presence domestically and abroad, edX is also redefining what it means to be a student.

Although most of the courses offered on the edX platform are taught by college and university faculty, university-age students comprise only 40% of the edX student body, according to an edX media kit. “Continuing learners,” a category that includes adult students beyond traditional university age, make up 55% of the student body, while the remaining 5% consists of high school students.

As a result, some of edX’s most recent collaborations are targeted towards the diverse educational background of its student body. Agarwal said that besides its lofty educational missions, another—perhaps more practical—goal of edX is “to help [students] find jobs and as much as we can.”

In its collaboration with LinkedIn, users of the professional networking site will be able to show certification for advanced coursework to potential employers, allowing students no longer enrolled in college or university to leverage their edX coursework in the job market.

And even though high school students still only make up a small minority of the platform’s students, edX’s newest partnership with College Board and Davidson College plans to provide innovative and data-driven modes of learning tailored for students preparing to enter college in the United States.

In the new collaboration, announced earlier this month, researchers from Davidson College plan to use data from the College Board to design mini-courses on edX to help students master the most difficult concepts on Advanced Placement exams; thus hoping to better prepare high school students for college-level academics.

“I think high school is particularly close to my own heart,” Agarwal said. “At the end of the day, if students don’t have the right background [for college courses] they won’t get much out of it.”

As edX continues to bring in partner universities and organizations from around the world and diversify the pool of courses offered to the public, Agarwal and other faculty members involved in edX hope that virtual education will become a more transformative source of learning.

“There is much excitement and much uncertainty in the world of online education,” said history professor William C. Kirby, who co-taught Societies of the World 12: “China” with Bol this past semester. "No one can safely predict where online education will go, but I for one am glad that Harvard has been willing to experiment and to leap a bit into the unknown."

Staff writer Kristina D. Lorch can be reached at klorch@college.harvard.edu.

Staff writer Conor J. Reilley can be reached at creilley@college.harvard.edu.

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