Education


Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses

Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses

In what is shaping up as an academic Battle of the Titans — one that offers vast new learning opportunities for students around the world — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities.

Harvard’s involvement follows M.I.T.’s announcement in December that it was starting an open online learning project to be known as MITx. Its first course, Circuits and Electronics, began in March, enrolling about 120,000 students, some 10,000 of whom made it through the recent midterm exam. Those who complete the course will get a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Similarly, edX courses will offer a certificate but will carry no credit.

But Harvard and M.I.T. are not the only elite universities planning to offer a wide array of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, as they are known. This month, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan announced their partnership with a new for-profit company, Coursera, with $16 million in venture capital.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who made headlines last fall when 160,000 students signed up for his Artificial Intelligence course, has attracted more than 200,000 students to the six courses offered at his new company, Udacity.

The technology for online learning, with video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback and student-paced learning, is evolving so quickly that those in the new ventures say the offerings are still experimental.

“My guess is that what we end up doing five years from now will look very different from what we do now,” said Provost Alan M. Garber of Harvard, who will be in charge of the university’s involvement.

EdX, which is expected to offer its first five courses this fall, will be overseen by a not-for-profit organization in Cambridge, owned and governed equally by the two universities, each of which has committed $30 million to the project. The first president of edX will beAnant Agarwal, director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who has led the development of the MITx platform. At Harvard, Dr. Garber will direct the effort, with Michael D. Smith, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, working with faculty members to develop and deliver courses. Eventually, they said, other universities will join them in offering courses on the platform.

M.I.T. and Harvard officials emphasized that they would use the new online platform not just to build a global community of online learners, but also to research teaching methods and technologies. Online courses with thousands of students give researchers the ability to monitor students’ progress, they said, identifying what they click on and where they have trouble. Already, a researcher from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, using the M.I.T. Circuits course, found that students overwhelmingly preferred to read the handwritten notes of Professor Agarwal rather than the same notes presented on PowerPoint.

Education experts say that while the new online classes offer opportunities for students and researchers, they also pose some threat to low-ranked colleges…


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