When MIT offered an experimental online course this spring, 120,000 people registered immediately—only slightly fewer students than all of the University’s living alumni. And the class was on circuits, which isn’t exactly breezy material.
This fall MIT will take that experiment further, joining forces with Harvard University to meet the global demand for accessible education. The pioneering joint venture, edX, is a not-for-profit learning platform that expands the reach of the two schools beyond the borders of Beantown and into the cloud.
Offering a handful of preliminary courses next semester, edX will incorporate video instruction, digital labs, user ranked problem sets as well as immediate feedback and class forums. Students won’t earn college credit but, if they pass the class, will receive a certificate of mastery with a juicy Harvard or MIT stamp.
Unlike previous online learning programs, edX will be shared as open source software. The president of edX, Anant Agarwal, told me that by inviting other institutions to join, refining data-driven teaching techniques, and fostering the democratization of learning, “edX will become truly disruptive and widely adopted.”
Did I mention it’s free?
The first few pilot courses and the services attached to them will come at no cost. However, even with edX’s not-for-profit ethos, the education platform needs to be monetized so that it can be sustained. Mr. Agarwal mentioned the possibility of charging for certificates, offering premium courses, and selling career placement services.
Riffing off the wild success of Khan Academy, other digital classrooms are gaining momentum. Codeacademy, Treehouse and Udacity offer a piece of the app economy to ambitious DIY students. And the makers of Raspberry Pi want to foster a love for hacking, putting inexpensive computers in the hands of young people.
But it is the arrival of edX and a pair of the most prestigious institutions in the world that speaks to the untapped potential of community based online learning. Rewarding borderless curiosity with unrivaled resources is what the next level of education can be.