About 100,000 students have signed up for Harvard University’s first free online courses — computer science and an adaptation of the Harvard School of Public Health’s classes in epidemiology and biostatics. The online courses, part of a joint venture called edX, begin Monday, according to Harvard.
The university’s provost, Alan Garber, said Friday that the free courses are part of an effort to educate people worldwide and that the effort will help improve education on Harvard’s own campus.
“We really think that the first courses we offer will be great, but long term, the payoff is going to come from a better understanding about how people learn,’’ Garber said.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology established edX, a nonprofit organization, in the spring, and the University of California Berkeley joined the effort over the summer.
Courses offered through edX are branded MITx, HarvardX, and BerkeleyX. Anant Agarwal, president of edX, said interest has been equally high for the courses offered by all three schools: 155,000 students registered for a course in circuits and electronics that MIT offered through edX
in the spring.
Students taking the online courses hail from around the world, but Agarwal said most of those in the spring course were in the United States, India, Britain, and Colombia.
Students can take as many courses as they wish through edX, and when they demonstrate mastery of a course they can receive a certificate of completion.
Despite the large number who have been registering for the courses, Agarwal said edX can support a variety of ways to grade student work. However, Garber, who is also a cochair of the board for edX, said new grading methods will need to be developed when courses are offered that require students to submit essays.
Innovations to the edX platform will enable the university to support more courses over the next year. EdX already supports discussion groups and forums that make online education effective and more engaging than textbooks, Garber said.
Agarwal said one of the hopes for the program is that the content and technology developed for the online courses can also be used on the Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley campuses.
Already, the courses are stimulating conversations among Harvard faculty
that have caused instructors to reexamine how they teach and what their goals are, Garber said.
“We view this as an incredible opportunity for us to ask deeper questions about how people learn and how we as a university help people to learn,’’ Garber said.