Online edX courses will open both universities’ classrooms to the world while enhancing on-campus learning.
MIT President Susan Hockfield and Harvard University President Drew Faust, accompanied by top officials from both institutions, announced on Wednesday a new collaboration that will unite the Cambridge-based universities in an ambitious new partnership to deliver online education to learners anywhere in the world.
The new venture, called edX, will provide interactive classes from both Harvard and MIT — for free — to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. But a key goal of the project, Faust said, is “to enhance the educational experience of students who study in our classrooms and laboratories.”
Hockfield described edX as a “shared expedition to explore the frontiers of digital education.” In launching some of the two institutions’ classes into the world in a highly interactive way, she said, “What we will discover together will help us do what we do better — to more effectively, more creatively, increase the vitality of our campuses — and at the same time increase educational opportunities for learners and teachers across the planet.”
The online tools developed for edX will also supplement the lectures, seminars and labs available to MIT’s and Harvard’s own students, and will provide detailed data about how well different parts of lessons are understood and what areas may require further explanation.
“Online education is not an enemy of residential education,” Hockfield said, “but rather an inspiring and liberating ally.”
She added that in facing the dramatic changes brought about by technology, “You can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.”
EdX brings a “possibility of transformation through education to learners across the globe,” Faust said. “We are privileged to be here today to mark the creation of a new partnership between two of the world’s great universities, a partnership that will change our relationship to knowledge and teaching for the benefit of our students, and students and would-be students everywhere.”
Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and president of the newly formed edX, called the new initiative a “historic partnership.” Online education, he said, is creating a “revolution” driven by “the pen and the mouse,” adding that edX is “disruptive, and will completely change the world.” The new possibilities afforded by today’s technology, he said, have created “the biggest change in education since the invention of the printing press.”
Agarwal, who is currently teaching the pilot course of MIT’s online-education program MITx, talked about the unexpected popularity of that class, “Circuits and Electronics,” despite its relatively challenging subject matter. The class, known as 6.002x, has attracted more than 120,000 registrants — ranging from high-school students to at least one octogenarian — and has spawned groups that have spontaneously formed worldwide to work together.
Hockfield said she was “frankly a bit stunned to know how many people around the world are willing to take on the challenge” of such a technical MIT class. The number of students who have enrolled in 6.002x, she pointed out, is just “a bit fewer than all of MIT’s living alumni.”
Agarwal said that while some universities have teamed up with for-profit companies to provide online classes, edX’s not-for-profit model is similar to one of the world’s most successful examples of online learning: Khan Academy, a set of online lessons aimed at K-12 students founded by MIT alumnus Salman Khan ’98, MEng ‘98. Khan “was a leader” in developing innovative ways of teaching online, Agarwal said.
MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif led an effort over the last five years that looked into ways to move the MIT classroom experience into an online environment, which culminated last December in the announcement of MIT’s online education initiative, called MITx. The goal of that project, as well as of the new edX collaboration, he said, “is to strengthen and enrich what we do on campus” by making use of the lessons learned about effective teaching methods, as well as the specific tools created for the online classes.
“The research we do online will allow us to find the best practices,” Reif said. And, he added, “Joining forces with Harvard will get us there much faster.”
Harvard Provost Alan Garber said that the edX platform’s ability to gather data about exactly how long students spend on each lesson segment, which parts they need to repeat, and which problems they struggle with will provide “an unprecedented opportunity to examine fundamental questions about how we learn.” These new tools, he said, will “enable us to do research that hasn’t been possible before” and provide “an opportunity to rethink how we approach education,” he said.
Michael D. Smith, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said, “We’re a research institution, and we’re interested in the power of technology in education.” A key goal of edX, he said, “is researching how technology can improve education, both on campus and off campus.”
Hockfield said edX is “genuinely an experiment, and we ourselves are prepared to learn.” As MIT and Harvard undertake this expedition toward a new and uncharted educational frontier, she advised: “Fasten your seat belts!”