Amidst reports of the rising role of virtual courses at Australian universities and the launch of massive lesson-sharing Websites through teachers’ union partnerships, comes the news that elite U.S. universities are answering the call for global online access to some of the highest quality education resources on the planet.
Seen by some as a risky venture, and by others as a “revolution in education,” Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced their USD $60 million edX alliance. EdX is an online platform providing access to Harvard and MIT courses at no cost, which will not only enhance the educational experience of both universities’ on-campus students, but will deliver free online education to ambitious learners anywhere in the world.
Anant Agarwal, the first president of edX, anticipates at least 500,000 learning participants when the project launches in the Fall. One recent pilot course, “Circuits and Electronics,” from MIT’s own burgeoning online-education program attracted more than 120,000 global registrants of all ages: a number that mirrors all of MIT’s living alumni combined. Moreover, researchers are looking forward to gathering a rich set of data from the edX platform, which will track best practices in on-line teaching, note which sections take longest or are repeated by users, and examine fundamental questions on how students learn the material. The edX initiative also plans to “allow for certificates of mastery to be earned by able learners, and to make the open-source platform available to other institutions.” Additionally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just announced a USD $1million gift toward MIT’s use of edX courses in partnership with colleges that serve low-income students.
On the other side of the country, academics at Stanford University are leading an online platform called Coursera.org, which will partner with Princeton University, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, UC Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania to offer their courses free online. The Website has already secured students from 190 countries, including high numbers from the UK, Brazil, Russia, and India. Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller admits that the expansion of free, virtual Ivy League courses will likely raise difficult questions about mainstream university fees, as well as a lack of comparable degrees available from on-line course completion. Furthermore, enrollment at middle-ranking education institutions, especially during the shifting financial climate, might be affected by these changes moving forward.
Now that big names in global education are committing millions of dollars to move peripheral on-line learning from the fray to center stage — open, equal, and free learning may be here to stay. “Online education is not an enemy of residential education,” MIT’s Hockfield said, “but rather an inspiring and liberating ally.”
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