Harvard and MIT Join Forces to Offer Online Courses

At the end of 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced it would broadcast open online courses, equal to that of its on-campus classes, to thousands of non-enrolled students around the world. The program, called MITx, was considered an important step in the process of using technology to facilitate access to quality education. Five months later, MIT is no longer the only school to offer such a program. On Thursday, Harvard University will join MIT in a joint venture that will make courses available online for students around the world.

"We will not only make knowledge more available, we will learn more about learning," Drew Faust, Harvard University president, said in a Harvard press release.

The two schools created a non-profit organization called edX, which will offer Harvard and MIT classes for free. These classes will include video lessons, embedded testing, real-time feedback, collaborative Web-based laboratories, student-placed learning, and more, according to the project’s website. Registration for these courses is open to anyone with access to a computer, and their work will be graded. Any student who successfully completes the course can purchase a certificate of mastery in the subject for a small fee, according to the press release.

Although these courses enable students to participate in classes at two of the country’s most prestigious institutions, they’re not designed to replace standard college credits. Instead, they’re meant to supplement what the student has learned in their own school, according to edX’s website. Along with the online courses, Harvard and MIT will use the program to research how students learn and how technology can be used to assist teaching. Susan Hockfield, MIT president, said the edX program shows that both schools are embracing the use of technology in education.

"Today in higher education, generally, 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 for education leaders in our lifetimes," Hockfield said. "Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally."

The first course offered by MIT’s program, 6.002x: Circuits & Electronics, opened last month and drew 120,000 registered students, according to Inside Higher Ed. Although some may consider that a success, some of MIT’s professors are concerned about the quality of the instruction and the kind of impact it could have on higher education. Woodie Flowers, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, wrote in a faculty newsletter that MITx’s model misses the "sweet spot" of education, which is "access to highly produced training systems accompanied by a rich on-campus opportunity to become educated."

Samuel Allen, a professor of metallurgy at MIT, wrote in the same edition of the newsletter that he was concerned about the impact inexpensive courses could have on traditional universities.

"If MITx is wildly successful, what is the future of the residential education experience that has been our mode of teaching for MIT’s entire history?" Allen wrote. "If students can master course materials online for free (or for a modest ‘credentialing’ fee), what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education?"

Despite the concerns, MIT and Harvard have each invested $30 million into edX, which will begin offering courses this fall.

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