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MIT-Harvard Project Aims to Change the Face of Learning

University Business, June 2012
Harvard President Drew Faust (left) and MIT President Susan Hockfield announce edX.
Harvard President Drew Faust (left) and MIT President Susan Hockfield announce edX.

At the beginning of the 21st century, MIT began a bold, pioneering experiment in bringing higher learning to the masses. Originally intended for students traveling abroad to keep up with their studies, the OpenCourseWare Project enabled anyone to access the OCW site and read course materials from more than 2,000 MIT classes. While there was no interaction with faculty and no grades or credit given for doing any of the work, it opened the door to a variety of possibilities for online learning.

Then, this year, the school introduced the successor to OCW, called MITx. This platform offered interactivity, online laboratories, and student-to-student communication. In addition, students that demonstrate a mastery of the material could get a certificate of completion awarded by MITx.

Now MIT has taken the idea to the next level, teaming with Harvard to offer edX. Like MITx, the new platform will feature interactivity and subject mastery certification. While edX will begin by hosting MITx and Harvardx content, the goal is to allow other universities to join the platform and offer their own content.

We asked readers whether they thought edX will truly improve education for everyone. Their answers pointed out the advantages and disadvantages of the new program.

“Anytime a quality education can be accessed freely by anyone around the world is a great thing in my mind. It will also force those who offer online classes to students for a fee to improve their quality of education,” says Carla Streff, director of instructional technology and training at Northeast Community College (Neb.).

“With the most respected universities in the world building innovative and open platforms for instruction and learning on a global scale, taught by brilliant scholars, is there any doubt that traditional instruction will change?” asks Christopher Wessells, vice provost and CIO at the University of San Diego.

Susan Herod, chief of staff for financial administration at the University of Virginia, is excited about the ideas behind edX. “Higher education isn’t [just] an industry, it is a passion for enlightening minds and raising the bar on human potential. We can only do that by providing access to anyone and everyone that has an interest in knowledge and improvement,” she says.

While most commenters were positive, some had reservations. Jim Prombo, vice president of academic affairs at Morrison Institute of Technology (Ill.) thought that too many people enrolling in the courses would fail for lack of academic ability to complete Harvard- and MIT-level work. “This is a nice Utopian concept that does not take into consideration the fact that unless a student is required to make some sacrifice for an achievement there is no achievement,” he said.

“My only question is how do you pay the bills if everyone takes this option?” wondered West Virginia University Police Chief Bob Roberts. “It sounds great in theory, but it could create havoc for the current educational model. Someone has to pay the bills.”