Elite Universities Offering Online Courses to All: A New Higher Ed Model?

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May 3, 2012; Source: New York Times

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard recently announced that they would jointly found edX, a new nonprofit enabling anyone to have access to Ivy League education online for free. The new venture is not the only such program in existence. Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan have launched a similar initiative, Coursera, and a new company founded by a Stanford professor, Udacity, has already drawn more than 200,000 students to its initial courses.

For edX, both MIT and Harvard have stated that they will put $30 million each towards the endeavor, which is expected to begin offering a few courses this fall, starting with engineering and humanities courses. The nonprofit that will run edX will feature a board comprised of the same number of members from both universities. Although the edX online course material will be free, it will not offer course credit, which may be an important distinction. As the Washington Post’s Daniel de Vise notes, “the online platform will not allow students back-door access to those prized [Harvard and MIT] brands. Online learners ‘who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion,’ the universities said in a statement, ‘but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.’”

These new online models draw into question the core business of higher education. Is higher education about the delivery of cutting edge material by experienced teachers and elite researchers? Some have suggested a Khan Academy-style movement in higher education, where a few elite or talented teachers provide lectures. But then where does in-person interaction with the instructor and the non-standardized evaluation and guidance of student work figure into getting an education?

Although the new wave in online education is calling into question the ways that universities have operated for a long time, the business model itself remains largely untested in the real world. What mechanisms will edX and other such efforts use to sustain themselves? Will they attract benefactors beyond their founding institutions? Will online advertising become part of the funding mix?

Finally, what do NPQ readers think about these new developments? –Michelle Shumate

  • Leon Mills

    I think it’s a great idea for Harvard and MIT to be offering this type of service, even if it’s for non-credit or not under their brand names (at least for now).

    I’ve been faciliatating an online course, for the past seven years, for association executives in Canada, which is sponsored by the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). Their website is csae.com if you want to check them out. They’ve been offering an online course for quite some time (as have many others) and after the completion of five university level courses and a final exam based on case study, association executives earn the Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation. It’s a great program that is also being purchased by association executives in other countries. They’ve also just rolled out a Foundations Course for mid-level managers who aspire to more senior leadership roles.

    Their programs are just one example of how the delivery of education is changing around the world. As communication modes get better, more interactive, more visual and are able to be accessed by more people, of all ages, via high-speed internet and fibre optic networks, I believe that we’ll be seeing less and less of traditional ‘mortar and bricks delivery’ of education of all kinds. This will be true for secondary, post-secondary (university, trades, technical schools) and all other kinds of educational delivery models.

    We are living in a wired world and its reach is becoming increasingly more connected; it is also becoming faster and hightly efficient, despite the complex technological, delivery, ethical, and other issues involved.

    Dare I make a claim that the traditional school, as we currently know it, will cease to exist in another ……20 years?

  • Morgan DeBaun

    As a graduating senior I’m curious about how websites like Coursera will affect the value of college degrees. While in college I frequented educational video websites like Khan Academy and [LINK=www.backpack.tv]Backpack TV[/LINK] to supplement my coursework, but I did not consider taking online classes for credits. As the platform opens up to more universities the quality of lectures and grading will need to be consistent. This will be a crucial factor when Universities are deciding whether to honor credits or not.

    Morgan DeBaun
    Backpack TV