School & District Management Opinion

Universities Battle to Teach the Most Students, Learners Win

By Justin Reich — May 03, 2012 2 min read
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The announcement yesterday from Harvard and MIT to jointly form EdX provides rapid acceleration to the arms race among elite universities to build Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to try to teach the world. (Or at least the Internet-accessible world interested in graduate courses in circuits.)

If you just invested millions into for-profit players Udacity and Coursera, then you are not excited to hear that the two most prestigious universities in the world are pooling $60 million into a venture with an openly-licensed platform, free courses, and modest credentialing fees.

I rode the train yesterday with my downstairs neighbor, Rebecca Riccio (who is busy transforming philanthropy education at Northeastern), and she asked some great questions about the venture, and I thought I’d share my answers here. Here’s what you should know about the EdX venture:

The Most Important Change is Culture

I’ve shared this point before, but even more important than trying to offer courses for free to millions of people, is how the explosion of MOOCs has the potential to change the culture of elite universities. For decades, fueled by selectivity criteria in college rankings, colleges have been bragging about how many students they turn away. Now, they are in a position to brag about how many students they serve. That is a huge change for elite institutions, and it could permeate every aspect of hiring, fundraising, organization, and mission. The EdX platform could profoundly change Harvard and MIT’s orientation to the wider world.

An arms race among the world’s leading Universities to best serve learners around the world sounds to me like a very, very good thing.

MITx and MIT OpenCourseWare are a little different

For about ten years, MIT has published a massive compendia of course materials on the Web through a program called OpenCourseWare (OCW). OCW is basically the stuff of a course: syllabi, slides, lecture notes, lecture videos, non-proprietary readings, etc. To call OCW “course handouts with some recorded lecturers thrown in” is not too far from the truth.

MITx on the other hands will attempt to deliver fully integrated courses to learners that include lecturers, peer-mediated discussions, (robo)graded assigments, and so forth. It will look much more like a regular online survey course, albeit one with hundreds of thousands of students.

At the press conference, an MIT representative discussed how OCW and MITx would be able to complement each other as the independently pursued their private mission.

We don’t actually know much about what Harvard is doing

Yesterday’s announcement might be summed up as “Harvard and MIT will spend $60 million to create a partnership around MOOCs. We don’t know much else yet.” We don’t know much about what courses Harvard will offer, who will be the leadership from the Harvard side, etc.

Not all MOOCs are about content delivery

This is going to take an entire additional post, but while the delivery focused models are getting all the attention, most of the thinking and experimentation in MOOCs has been developed by people more interested in creating shared learning experiences than using the Internet as a giant lecture hall.

Start here and I’ll follow up with more soon.

Audrey Watters, as per usual, has a great write up on the field at Inside Higher Ed as well.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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