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Earlier this week, Harvard Business School announced that it would launch HBX, a venture designed to provide online courses offered by a world-renowned institution. The “X” in the acronym makes a partial reference to edX, another online endeavor by the University to offer a series of massively open online courses in partnership with several other universities, including MIT. HBX and edX plan on being “deeply interwoven” with each other, and we have praised edX in the past for opening the door to higher education and making such courseware available to the public. HBX differs from its counterpart in its selectivity and premium price—neither of which characterize edX. Nonetheless, it fits the broader spirit of using modern technology to share a Harvard education beyond Cambridge.
Joining HBX requires more than just redirecting to a given URL—according to the Boston Globe, enrollment in the first term of HBX’s “CORe,” or “Credential of Readiness,” will require individuals to go through a selective application process as well as submit $1500 in payment upon matriculation. While these fees and applications may seem to contradict the philanthropic nature of edX, they will aid the financial stability of Harvard’s ventures in online education. When edX was launched in 2012, $60 million in combined funding from Harvard and MIT helped kick-start the program. This money, however, can only carry edX so far until it must become financially independent. EdX’s very own CEO, Anant Agarwal, confirmed that the platform is planning on becoming self-sustaining within a few years, after initial funds have run dry.
All else equal, of course, free or low-cost education is preferable to $1500 price tags. But even though edX is a non-profit organization, it still must break even in its costs. A similar project—AllLearn by Stanford, Oxford, and Yale—closed under financial duress in 2006, and Columbia University’s Fathom shut down for the same reasons in 2003. Harvard is rightly motivated to ensure its projects avoid that fate, as is evident in the choice of Wendy Cebula, an accomplished businesswoman, for edX’s new COO on Monday.
Some might view the recent launch of HBX as pointing to an identity crisis, with edX split between altruistic and cost-conscious sides. But we see edX much like we would a startup, finding entrepreneurial ways to adapt and generate necessary revenue while still keeping itself applicable to many users. HBX doesn’t introduce barriers to existing content. Instead, with the addition of HBX, the Harvard platform online expands its range of both public and premium services. That platform has a variety of goals from experimentation to affordability, but above all, Harvard’s online forays aim to deliver a high-quality education to more people than Harvard’s non-virtual classrooms can seat. With its emphasis on preserving quality and its eye for sustainability, HBX promises to accomplish that.
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