Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced the formation of a $60 million joint venture called edX, which will offer free courses online. Many Ivy League and elite universities and colleges are moving in the same direction, such as Corsera (started by Stanford professors) and programs at Yale and Carnegie Mellon. We asked our Zintro experts what’s in it for these universities and where this trend is moving.
Glenn Everett, a higher education consultant, says that the motive behind edX is research. “The Harvard and MIT announcements emphasize the data that they will gather on how we learn, for application, online, and also in the classroom,” he says. “They apparently intend to do some follow-up with the students, to learn not just how well they do on the exams, but how well they acquire and apply the learning months after the course has ended. And although they speak briefly of making the venture pay for itself through “modest fees” for certificates of course completion, Edx is apparently not driven by need for profit; they are not worried about “monetizing” the idea.”
Another, perhaps not-so-secondary motive, would seem to be establishing brand identity online for these residential schools, says Everett. “When asked what they have learned from other initiatives, Anant Agarwal, edX’s president, mentioned Khan Academy as ‘no. 1 out there’ in terms of innovation. One might surmise that Harvard and MIT hope for edX to have a Wikipedia-like impact in the area of free online courses,” he explains. “edX may have a significant impact in non-credit offerings, a staple of continuing education divisions at many colleges and universities. But Khan Academy was already showing where the future was heading. In the long term, the impact on student learning may be significant, but that depends entirely on quality of the research yet to be done—but at least it will be done.”
Lori Lyons, an ESL teacher in a developing country, says that Harvard and MIT’s joint edX venture is welcome news. “Why? It’s free. Talented, motivated educators in developing countries desperately need free access to top-quality courses. Current pricing structures make most online courses inaccessible to the vast majority of people,” Lyons says.
While one would love to think these courses will be offered altruistically for the improvement of world-wide educational standards, Lyons suspects that edX will also collect invaluable information on a global level regarding gaps in knowledge levels, language proficiency, cultural dispositions, and so on. “This data can be mined and re-purposed for for-profit ventures, in addition to leveraging it for customized corporate training,” she says. “It also might make these institutions more attractive for subsequent federal grants and the equivalent on an international level. Moreover, the project may be the world’s biggest beta test before launching new internet-based instructional technology.”
Gregnla, an expert in high tech sales for higher education who has been involved in marketing online education for years, says that from experience it’s very difficult for people to stay dedicated to online coursework, and this offering, as great as it is, will be no different. “That being said, it’s great to see some disruptive ideas flowing from such prestigious schools. With all the recent headlines about the now over $1 trillion in student debt, it’s probably a smart PR move for these institutions to offer free online education to the masses, especially considering how much Ivy League education costs,” says Gregnla.
Gregnla believes that offering these courses for free is a great, altruistic idea, but people won’t come away with an accredited degree. “It’s purely educational and thus won’t help people meet any job requirements. Only those who are truly interested and self-motivated in learning, for the joy of learning, will take advantage of these courses,” he says. “In my opinion, the people that this program could help the most (under-educated, low financial means) will probably not benefit from it.”
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