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Harvard and MIT Team Up to Educate a Billion People Online

The new online learning platform edX will bring a Harvard and MIT education to the planet.

Last December MIT took its decade-old Open Course Ware initiative to the next level when it announced the launch of MITx, a nonprofit online platform that would allow students anywhere in the world to take MIT classes for free. Now MIT has joined forces with its neighbor, Harvard, to launch a new online learning platform, edX, that aims to share knowledge with an even greater number of learners.

Harvard provost Alan Garber says MITx was such a game changer—over 120,000 students from around the globe signed up for the first class, slightly fewer than the total number of living MIT alumni—Harvard knew they wanted to be a part of it. As a result, the schools are investing $30 million each to jumpstart edX as an umbrella organization that will oversee MITx and the just-announced HarvardX.

Representatives from both schools say edX is a work in progress but it will retain the core components of MITx: Anyone in the world with an internet connection will be able to sign up for a class. The classes won't be MIT or Harvard-lite—they'll have the same academic quality as classes taught on campus. And, if a student if completes all assignments and exams and is able to demonstrate mastery of the material, for a fee they’ll receive a certificate of completion. While MIT provost Rafael Reif says the driving force behind edX isn’t to make money, it can't "become a drain on the budgets of Harvard and MIT." The schools have yet to announce the cost for each certificate, although they say it will be "modest."

Along with developing edX into a robust online learning platform that MIT and Harvard hope will eventually educate a billion people, the schools plan to use the initiative to research personalized learning and collaboration technologies. Anant Agarwalr, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science who is the first president of edX, says they're eager to "understand how people are learning." Indeed, the amount of data that edX will generate will help educators get a clearer picture of how students learn in the 21st century.

EdX hopes other colleges and universities will partner with them under the "X" banner—NorthwesternX, or BerkeleyX, for example—in order to expand the depth and breadth of available courses on the platform. But will edX eventually replace traditional university degree programs? MIT president Susan Hockfield says she doesn’t believe online education is an enemy of residential learning. Instead of seeing developments like edX as threatening, Hockfield wants people to see the possibilities and benefits to the global community of learners.

The first edX classes will be announced this summer, and will kick off in the fall. Given that Open Course Ware has educated over a hundred million people over the past decade, edX's goal of educating a billion might just be attainable.

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