Harvard, MIT online learning portal to help Web, classroom learning

But students will not be able to earn degrees from either school by completing online courses

An online education organization backed and funded by MIT and Harvard University will use open-source technology to offer free classes over the Internet, the two schools announced Wednesday at a press conference.

Admission will be open to anyone in the world who is connected to the Web, and classes will start in the fall, they said. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are investing a combined US$60 million in the collaboration.

Called edX, the nonprofit organization will work on the Web-based platform that will deliver the content. Harvard and MIT will equally own and operate the venture, which will be located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where both are based. The technology running edX is based on an online learning platform MIT launched in December called MITx.

EdX will initially offer Harvard and MIT courses, which will appear in specific portfolios for each institution. Over time the organization hopes to include material from other universities and allow other schools to add features to the platform, a process that will be aided by making edX's technology open.

"We will open source all our software to the world so that anybody else can take that platform and use it anywhere they want," said Anant Agarwal, president of edX and director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. EdX staff will help schools that want to offer content on the platform, he added. The specific staffing needs are still being determined.

The platform's emphasis on Web-based learning will differentiate it from other online offerings, according to speakers at the press conference, which was also webcast. EdX aims to offer a more interactive experience that goes beyond video instruction. While videos will be offered, students can also take quizzes, participate in online labs and communicate with other students and teachers, among other features, said Agarwal.

Saying that edX is "genuinely an experiment," MIT President Susan Hockfield noted that there is strong interest in Web education. A prototype course the school offered on MITx in the spring drew almost as many registrants as the number of living MIT alumni.

Some in higher education may view online education as a threat to traditional campus learning, but Hockfield said that edX should be viewed as an ally.

To that extent, edX will make the data gathered from its online platform available to MIT and Harvard researchers with the aim of bettering classroom and online learning.

EdX offers "an unprecedented opportunity to understand how we learn," said Harvard Provost Alan Garber, who will lead the university's online portfolio, HarvardX. "It's about learning how to use the classroom more effectively."

Though edX courses are free, credentials showing that a person did well in a class will cost "a modest fee" to be set by edX's board, according to a news release.

While the collaboration's aim is to improve learning and not make money, edX will need to generate some income, said MIT Provost Rafael Reif.

"Clearly, we want to make sure that this isn't a drain on the budgets of Harvard and MIT," said Reif. The schools can take "several approaches" to monetizing edX, but sharing those options is "a little premature," he said.

For those hoping to earn Harvard or MIT credentials, mastering edX classes will not result in certificates from either university. Achievement in edX courses may earn people "a certificate of completion" but it will not have either MIT or Harvard's name on it, according to the release.

MIT and Harvard students will not be able to earn credit by taking edX courses. The platform should be used to supplement campus courses, the release said.

Harvard and MIT are still determining what courses will be offered on edX. Harvard envisions faculty from its public health, law, and arts and sciences colleges offering courses, Garber said. However, the final decisions will be made by MIT and Harvard as well as the edX board, he added.

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