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EdX Partnership with Microsoft, Smithsonian Could Provide Professional Preparation

By Hannah Smati, Crimson Staff Writer

In response to news that edX will collaborate to offer courses with Microsoft and the Smithsonian Institution, some higher education experts said the platform’s non-university partnerships could serve to prepare students for the workforce and provide insights into teaching within higher education.

EdX, a massive open online course platform founded by Harvard and MIT in 2012, will launch seven courses on programming and cloud technologies in collaboration with Microsoft. Although Microsoft already has its own platform, Microsoft Virtual Academy, for learning content, the company’s motivation to partner with edX was partly to offer content that follows the MOOC model, according to a joint statement by Jatinder P. S. Kohli, director of product, and Björn C. Rettig, director of content at Microsoft.

“We have been watching MOOCs closely, and in particular how Harvard uses CS50 to teach Introduction to Computer Science,” they wrote. “EdX courses have a much higher investment in instructional design, interactive simulations, coding exercises, structured hands-on experiences that many learners need.”

A large motivation behind the partnership might also have been to reach edX’s student audience, according to Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Schroeder said there is an increasing number of employers looking for students that have specific technical skills for entry-level jobs, and so collaborating with edX would be a good way to target potential employees.

“In a way, it’s a reflection on us at universities, that employers feel we’ve not given those students the skills they need to enter the workforce,” he said. Consequently, the verified certificates that students gain upon completion of an edX course will carry “significant weight.”

However, Joshua M. Kim, director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, said verified certificates have yet to prove their worth in the job market even though the courses have the potential to close the skills gap.

“We’re in a new world where credentials are changing,” he said. “We’ll see if these become credentials that employers think are really valuable.”

In addition to Microsoft, edX also partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to launch three courses on American history—one taught by Stan Lee, former president of Marvel Comics.

According to Kim and Schroeder, these new partnerships with non-universities could be in response to new competition from rival MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity, and even Khan Academy.

“I think we’re going to see a proliferation of partnerships and collaborations, and it won’t just be colleges and universities,” Schroeder said.

Kim said a more important motivation of the new edX partnerships is to facilitate interaction between the teaching styles of higher education and other places of learning.

“Through the edX consortium, we can spend time learning from the Smithsonian and they can learn from us—these are conversations we don’t normally have,” he said, referring to universities. “It helps us to move more quickly, experiment, try things, and take risks.”

Richard Kurin, under secretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian Institution and course instructor for a SmithsonianX course, said edX’s new experimentation could be invaluable to teaching in higher education.

“You know what to expect when you walk into a classroom,” Kurin said. “But in this one, the fact that it is so open and out there, it was kind of liberating. I’m curious to see how it goes.”

—Staff writer Hannah Smati can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @HannahSmati.

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