Harvard, MIT unite to expand online education

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are teaming up to expand their online education programs -- and they're inviting other institutions to come on board.

Called edX, the $60 million joint venture builds on MIT's existing MITx platform that enables video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, online laboratories and student-paced learning.

"EdX represents a unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new education path for millions of learners worldwide," said MIT president Susan Hockfield in a statement.

A first set of four or five courses, taught by Harvard and MIT faculty, is to start in September this year, with the two Boston area universities offering "as broad an initial set of courses as possible."

In a joint statement, they proposed to share edX -- overseen by a non-profit organization led by Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's computer science lab -- with other schools and organizations.

"Because the learning technology will be available as open-source software, other universities will be able to help edX improve and add features to the technology," they said.

In a telephone interview, Agarwal said an ongoing prototype MIT course on circuits and electronics -- MIT's first undergraduate analog design course -- attracted 120,000 students from around the world.

"All they need is a laptop and a browser" to take part, he said.

Courses on edX will be free of charge, but in lieu of credits that can go towards a degree, Harvard and MIT are considering levying a fee for issuing certificates to those who complete a course, Agarwal said.

"We're not looking to make money, but it's important to be self-sustaining," he said, adding that the project has already generated "a lot of interest from a lot of universities" abroad.

In time, Agarwal said, edX should grow to include all disciplines from science to the humanities, including business, law and medicine.

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