Thursday, May 3, 2012

Massive Courses, Massive Data > Harvard joins MIT in Platform to Offer Massive Online Courses

May 3, 2012 - 3:00am  / Steve Kolowich

After a whirlwind nine months that has witnessed a rapid rebirth of online education at elite U.S. universities in the form of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, Harvard University threw its hat into the ring Wednesday -- along with the largest investment yet in technology aimed at bringing interactive online education to hundreds of thousands of students at a time, free.

Harvard will be piggybacking on MITx, the platform the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed for its own MOOCs, the universities jointly announced. The combined venture will be a nonprofit called edX. [snip]. Like the open courses being developed by MIT, Harvard’s open, online courses will be taught by the same professors who preside over the classroom versions. The courses will have to go through an approval process at each campus to make sure they measure up to standards of rigor and usability.


The "prototype" course for the edX project, an MIT-produced course called Circuits & Electronics, has drawn 120,000 registrants. There is no word on what Harvard and MIT courses are next in line for MOOC adaptation, but university officials indicated that the edX offerings will include courses in humanities, social science and natural science.

The EdX platform will be open source, “so it can be used by other universities and organizations who wish to host the platform themselves,” according to the release. While EdX will initially play host to adapted versions of courses from MIT and Harvard, the institutions expect it to become a clearinghouse for open courses offered by various institutions.


Business Venture vs. Research Project

Harvard and MIT say one of their main goals with edX is to generate learning data that the universities  can share freely with education researchers. The MITx platform, which will serve as the technology platform for edX, “already has a lot of mechanisms for understanding how students are learning," said Anant Agarwal, a computer science and engineering professor at MIT and the first president of edX.


In a subtle swipe at the proprietary companies (like Coursera and Udacity) that have also built platforms through which top-tier universities can run MOOCs, L. Rafael Reif, the MIT provost, suggested that the ethic of transparency and public-mindedness Harvard and MIT bring to the table will make edX a more generous and responsible curator of the learning data that MOOC platforms will accumulate.

“We feel very strongly that that data should be available for research under the governance of a not-for-profit structure,” Reif said.

In an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, the co-founders of Coursera, called the nonprofit vs. for-profit argument "a red herring and a non-issue." [snip]

Koller and Ng emphasized that despite its status as a for-profit company, Coursera was founded on educational principles that its two professorial founders carried over from their academic posts at Stanford.

"All ... courses on the Coursera platform are free to students worldwide," Ng wrote. "Our partnerships with universities are non-exclusive and have no time commitment.[snip].

The Coursera co-founder added that his company also plans to work "with university academics" to "analyze student data to obtain a better understanding of online pedagogy and student learning... and understand human learning at a scale and depth that has been never been possible before."


Preempting Campus Anxiety

The recent, aggressive movement of the name-brand institutions into free, massive versions of their vaunted courses has kindled discussions about the future of face-to-face education as the free, online options become more sophisticated and creditable.

Harvard and MIT reiterated in Wednesday’s press conference that their objective is primarily to improve the value proposition for tuition-paying students rather than undermine it.

“MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online,” the universities said in a release. “The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful.”


The universities' vaunted courses via the Web will in some ways open the gates to learning opportunities that historically have been the exclusive privilege of tuition-paying students, said Drew Faust, the Harvard president. "It is, however, what will happen on our campuses that will truly distinguish edX," she said.


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