Free Education for the World: EdX Harvard, Berkeley, MIT Online Courses

Free Education for the World: EdX Harvard, Berkeley, MIT Online Courses

Posted 05.23.2012 in Articles by Angela

Thousands of people all over the world can enroll in classes offered by the most elite of elite universities for absolutely no cost except their time. Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley are all part of a growing movement for free education offered to people of all backgrounds, anywhere, in the online edX program which allows anyone to take online classes that does not sacrifice in terms of the quality and exacting standards of the esteemed educational institutions; the coursework is just as rigorous as an on-campus course. Online education is an innovation that is changing the commonly held perceptions of education and college and university classes, providing an alternative to expensive college tuition and on-campus learning.

edX is an organization that was established jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology providing an open-source platform for online courses. They established online portfolios of the two universities' course offerings, Harvardx and MITx. On July 24th, their repertoire expanded when the top public university in America, UC Berkeley, joined in on the project. In fall of 2012 the edX course offerings include “Software as a Service”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry”, and more. edX is different from other online courses in the past in that it is an interactive online experience quite different from watching videos online. The open-source software will allow other universities to apply the same model to their own course offerings. The edX team has said that “Our goal is to educate one billion people around the world.”

edX will also be used for educational experimentation, to see which teaching methods are most effective for students. The prototype class for edX, “Circuits and Electronics”, also referred to by its course catalog number 6.002x, was opened in March and saw 155,000 enrollments. Of the 155,000 who registered, 7,157 students successfully passed the course, including a 15-year old from Mongolia who received a perfect score on the final exam. Professor Anant Agarwal of MIT, creator of this first course, says that the number of students who passed in this first prototype course is about how many students might take the course in 40 years on-campus at MIT.

Arthur Amaral, an 18-year old from Brazil who took the prototype class, went into the class without much experience in differential equations and little background in calculus or physics. Reflecting on his experience with 6.002x and spending about ten hours a week on the coursework offered by MITx, he wrote that despite the demanding coursework, the difficult exams and labs, and the rigorous and time-consuming course, he found time for it between his job and his other studies and found an very enthusiastic and supportive group of students in the online community.

The online courses offered by such top-tier institutions mean a huge step forward for online education. The access to higher education would be expanded significantly, to anyone around the world with an Internet connection. Costs for education would also lower significantly, which is important in the face of rising tuition costs and student debt. For edX, students who take the classes in fall 2012 will receive free certificates at the end of the class, though edX does plan to charge a small fee for certificates in future classes. Furthermore, with online courses professors will not have to spend as much time in lecture and give students more time for research and discussion.

On the flip side of this movement, however, is the potential for online education to undermine the college campus model. If education of the same quality can be attained through online classes for a much lower cost than the escalating tuitions of today, the appeal of actually going to college for a degree will be lowered. Though professors such as Agarwal say that school institutions will not be threatened by this educational movement, professors at public universities are worried that they will be sacrificed in favor of online education. The same worry applies to community colleges as well.

Others say that online education and the massive open online courses (MOOCs) will not detract from any institutions, from community to private; reported tone community college dean considers MOOC education a very strong supplement to, but no replacement for, institutions of higher education. Instead of being a threat, online education and the new opportunities presented by such movements as edX will enhance education and make it more available to a wider audience, but will not force any private, public, or other secondary institutions to close.

President Hockfield of MIT stated that “[MITx] will also bring new energy to our longstanding effort to educate millions of able learners across the United States and around the world...we hope that teachers and students the world over will together create learning opportunities that break barriers to education everywhere.”

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