More on Harvard and MIT’s big online move

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.

Keith Hampson, a digital higher education consultant, says that buried in the public responses to the news about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) and other initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others, is a deceptively important assumption.

“The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions,” explains Hampson. “On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained, long-used logic and criteria used to rank different institutions. According to this logic, the best institutions, like Harvard and Stanford, provide students (those with the money and grades) with access to the most respected academics, and in turn, to the latest and best thinking on academic subjects. The excitement about MOOCs from Princeton and others is that it gives the public access to materials that are otherwise available to a privileged few.”

However, in this case of edX, the traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading, says Hampson. He thinks that prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions could limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Hampson explains:

–          Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. This work will flow out of the institution’s teaching capacity and operations.

–          These elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level.

–          Faculty members hired by these institutions know that their labor market value is based primarily on their research productivity: the ability to garner research funds, conduct research, and publish.

–          The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives.
“The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate,” says Hampson. “If a student is able learn MIT material via edX, then it is highly likely that he or she is more than capable of obtaining access to a college education. Moreover, to benefit from these initiatives, the learner must be relatively self-motivated and disciplined.”

If these initiatives, on the other hand, plan to pitch the material at a much lower academic level than what is taught at their institutions in order to serve the needs of students that are more likely to need access to free courseware, then these initiatives becomes of little significance, if not misleading, says Hampson.

“MIT, Harvard, and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. Rather, the motivation is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students (going digital has a tendency to impose more discipline on course design, for example), they are giving away their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands,” says Hampson.

Krish Sailam, an expert on education lead generation, says that edX is not just about free courses, it is a whole new model of education that has several benefits. “It is low cost, it enables peer to peer learning, and the content is up to date. Colleges realize their cost structure is largely unsustainable as a key issue, but the underlying issue is that the everyone needs to learn not just the elite and rich,” he says.

Sailam says that edX takes advantage of new communication technologies, new interfaces, and the fact that the expert in the field might be the person sitting next to you, not the professor. “The concept of a degree is being undermined by new technologies that offer a la carte courses. Why are adult learners being forced to take on liberal arts courses when all they want is one specific course that is directly related to their job? Consider this the era of on-demand and bespoke education,” says Sailam.
“As other sites like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and KhanAcademy rise, the concept of micro-education will help bring online learning to the masses. MIT and Harvard want to be at the forefront of the learning revolution since they were considered kings of the traditional model. They need to stay relevant and at the head of the pack. edX is a great way to not only provide high-end knowledge, but also drive new research.”

By Maureen Aylward

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