Harvard, MIT to partner in $60 million initiative to offer free online classes to all

Harvard president Drew Faust and MIT president Susan Hockfield announced the new online program today.
Harvard president Drew Faust and MIT president Susan Hockfield announced the new online program today. –Bill Greene/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said today they will team up to launch a $60 million initiative to offer free, online, college-level courses under a joint superbrand known as edX.

The announcement instantly makes the entity a preeminent player in the burgeoning worldwide online education sector, which has seen several major start-ups — including some affiliated with top-tier universities — in recent months.

MIT already has a head start. In December, it announced it would create Web-based courses featuring discussion forums, short videos, and laboratory simulations, all under the guidance of MIT professors and teaching assistants. It hopes other universities will adopt the technology from its open-source platform.


But Harvard’s role in the project goes well beyond using MIT’s existing platform to deliver its own content. The two universities also plan to collaborate on research into how students learn online by monitoring the progress of the hundreds of thousands of people they hope will sign up for classes, which could range from high-level math and engineering to the humanities.

“Through this partnership we will not only make knowledge more available but we will learn more about learning,’’ Harvard President Drew Faust said this morning at a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge. “Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can have access.’’

Faust predicted the venture would “change our relationship to knowledge and to teaching for the benefit of our students and students and would-be students everywhere.’’

Standing beside Faust, MIT President Susan Hockfield said: “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. Online education is not an enemy of residential education but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally.’’

Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost. said the venture gives both schools to “collect data that simply hasn’t existed. How much time do students spend with different elements? Do people who go back and repeat a video segment learn better, or worse?’’


Representatives of both schools said they thought the effort would enhance their brands rather than weaken them.

“This is not about diluting or not diluting,’’ said Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost. “This is about giving our students the best education possible. At the same time, once we have the content online, we might as well share it with the world.’’

Harvard plans to officially announce its first courses in the summer and begin offering the courses in the fall. A source involved in internal discussions said there would probably be three: one each in computer science, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Although edX will draw faculty and resources from both Harvard and MIT — including initial commitments of $30 million each — it will be an independent, nonprofit entity with its own administration.

Many details remain to be set. Harvard’s approach to the project is likely to differ from MIT’s in some respects.

For instance, the MIT arm of edX plans to offer credentials — not MIT diplomas, but “MITx’’ certificates of mastery for individual courses — for a small fee that might vary depending on students’ means.

The “HarvardX’’ side is not yet sure whether it will offer credentials or charge any fee for them. Its first courses will be free to ensure as wide an audience as possible, said Michael Smith, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences: “It’s a research environment. We want to be capturing as much information as we can.’’

The announcement from the two Cambridge powerhouses is likely to send shock waves through the online education world.


“Wow. Wow. Huge,’’ said Debra Satz, a Stanford University philosophy professor who has followed that university’s online efforts, upon hearing of Harvard’s plans. “I’m a bit surprised that Harvard is doing this with MIT. They have very different cultures. If anything, maybe I had hoped that Stanford and MIT would collaborate.’’

Until today’s announcement, Stanford was considered by many to be the leading university pioneering large-scale, free college education online. It ran three engineering courses last fall that drew hundreds of thousands of students. Their success inspired one of the professors who taught them to quit his tenured job and launch a private start-up, Udacity, that will offer more such classes.

Two other major for-profit online education start-ups have launched in the last month. The Minerva Project aims to offer a full, classical university education online for half the typical tuition at an Ivy League school. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers chairs its advisory board.

The other start-up, Coursera, is more similar to edX, allowing students to pick and choose free courses.

Like Udacity, Coursera is the brainchild of Stanford professors. It launched two weeks ago, featuring classes from Stanford, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those developments may have lit a fire under Harvard. A source involved in discussions there said the university met with representatives from Coursera and others in recent months but decided its own project should be strictly not-for-profit.

MIT was a more natural fit — the two universities already collaborate on other projects, such as the Broad Institute, their joint biomedical research center. Harvard said it felt it needed to act quickly, the source said: “MIT was forging ahead, and we didn’t want to look like we were playing catch-up.’’

That is not to say Harvard has ignored online learning until now. It already offers several Web-based classes for its students.

More than a decade ago, it ran one of the earliest experiments in online learning: a computer science class for 100 of its on-campus undergraduates and 17 students who attended from afar. Not only did the online group fare as well academically as the on-campus one, it produced the class star, a Harvard alumnus from Turkey who aced the final.

That example encouraged Harvard’s continuing-education arm, the Extension School, to put more material online in the early 2000s. (It now offers more than 150 distance-learning courses.)

The rest of Harvard was less receptive at the time.

“I think folks found the idea threatening. They were worried about maybe cheapening the Harvard experience,’’ said Henry Leitner, the senior lecturer and associate dean who taught the early computer science course. “Also, it was still a geeky thing to do, and high-quality Internet bandwidth was pretty scarce. People didn’t want to be debugging when they were supposed to be teaching.’’

Times have changed with technology. Online education is now a juggernaut; more than 6.1 million current college students took a Web-based course in fall 2010. Nearly a third of students have taken one during their college careers.

About 120,000 people have signed up for the first MITx course, “Circuits and Electronics,’’ which began in March. The school has already learned a great deal, said Anant Agarwal, the prominent MIT computer scientist who will oversee edX.

“The one thing we all had sleepless nights about was, we had 120,000 students enroll — how on earth were we going to support them?’’ he said, invoking the specter of 120,000 questions about a single midterm. “We had a fond hope that the students would begin teaching each other.’’

They did, he said, often before teaching assistants could chime in. “I ended up telling our TAs to hold off on answering questions quickly,’’ he said. “It was amazing. Absolutely amazing.’’

The announcement may meet skepticism from some faculty, particularly those at Harvard and MIT who question how well the humanities can be taught online. Essay-grading is a particular bone of contention. MIT said it would eventually crowd-source that task to students or employ automated-grading computer programs, colloquially known as “robo-readers.’’ But many professors at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere do not believe the technology is adequate.

“Assessing essays is very labor-intensive, and it can’t be automated,’’ Satz said. “Maybe a robo-reader could pick out crude markers of difference between papers, but I can’t imagine one looking at an argument about consequentialism and assessing the objections to it.’’

On Twitter: Follow today’s announcement at https://twitter.com/#!/edXOnline

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