BOSTON — Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology met midway between their campuses Wednesday in a hotel on the Charles River to announce a monumental partnership.
Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust stood next to MIT President Susan Hockfield in announcing the creation of edX, a $60 million nonprofit that will offer Harvard and MIT courses online for free to anyone in the world. Faust said the edX platform will be free to other schools who want to put courses online.
“Ultimately we will expand the scope of our efforts collaborating with other universities to host a wide array of educational offerings on a single site,” Faust said.
The courses, a few of which will be offered in the fall, will be taught by MIT or Harvard professors and graded if a student wants to get a certificate for completing the program.
Hockfield said she knows it’s a radical shift away from the cloistered Ivy walls of a college campus, but it’s the future.
“Today in higher education, generally you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change or unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a movement charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes,” Hockfield said.
Unlike for-profit, online schools, Harvard and MIT’s new edX is dedicated to improving learning, not making money, said MIT Provost Rafael Reif.
“The driving force, as you will hear it from Harvard and MIT, is not to make money,” he said. “The driving force is to improve the learning that occurs on our campuses and hopefully the campuses worldwide.”
But Reif adds the schools intend to find a way to make the program self-supporting.
MIT has been at the forefront of online education since 2001, when it created OpenCourseWare. Last year, it went a step further and started MITx, which offers online courses for a certificate. The first class on circuits and electronics drew 120,000 students.
Stanford University is also a leader in online education, and many private start-ups are trying to capitalize on the trend. Still, some faculty at MIT question the rationale of giving away courses, which could be the first step toward ending the campus experience.
Samuel Allen, professor of metallurgy and chair of the MIT faculty, says he doesn’t expect this online expansion to put MIT and Harvard out of business. But there’s reason for concern.
“I think if the institutions don’t think very creatively about the value added by being on campus, and do things that are going to emphasize that, it will radically change the way we are doing things,” Allen said.
But Hockfield said she doesn’t think the online expansion threatens on-campus learning.
“Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally,” she said.
MIT and Harvard will use edX as a research platform to see how students learn and which teaching methods work best.
“We believe in not only producing educational courses online, but using this as an unprecedented opportunity to answer fundamentals about how we learn,” said Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost. “And this is not only about how to design the best online courses; this is about how to use the classroom more effectively.”
And that, the Harvard and MIT presidents said, will enhance the on-campus learning experience for the students at Harvard and MIT, who are paying tuition.