At the recent news conference announcing edX, a $60 million Harvard-MIT partnership in online education, university leaders spoke of reaching millions of new students in India, China and around the globe. They talked of the "revolutionary" potential of online learning, hailing it as the "single biggest change in education since the printing press."
Heady talk indeed, but they are right. The nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.
These same university leaders mentioned the limits of edX itself. Its online courses would not lead to Harvard or MIT degrees, they noted, and were no substitute for the centuries-old residential education of their hallowed institutions. They also acknowledged that the initiative, which offers free online courses prepared by some of the nation's top professors, is paid for by university funds—and that there is no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain it.
In short, while they want to be part of the change they know is coming, they are uncertain about how to proceed. And in this Harvard and MIT are not alone. Stanford, for instance, offers a free online course on artificial intelligence that enrolls more than 150,000 students world-wide—but the university's path forward is similarly unclear. How can free online course content be paid for and sustained? How can elite institutions maintain their selectivity, and be rewarded for it, when anyone can take their courses?