MIT and Harvard launch a ‘revolution in education’

May 3, 2012

MIT and Harvard announced on Wednesday an ambitious new partnership called called edX to deliver online education to learners anywhere in the world.

The edX venture will provide a wide variety of interactive courses from both Harvard and MIT — for free — to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. A first set of courses will be announced in early Summer, to start in Fall 2012.

Online tools developed for edX will also supplement the lectures, seminars and labs available to MIT’s and Harvard’s own students, and will provide detailed data about how well different parts of lessons are understood and what areas may require further explanation.

Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and president of the newly formed edX, called the new initiative a “historic partnership.” Online education, he said, is creating a “revolution” driven by “the pen and the mouse,” adding that edX is “disruptive, and will completely change the world.” The new possibilities afforded by today’s technology, he said, have created “the biggest change in education since the invention of the printing press.”

Agarwal, who is currently teaching the pilot course of MIT’s online-education program MITx, talked about the unexpected popularity of that class, “Circuits and Electronics,” despite its relatively challenging subject matter. The class, known as 6.002x, has attracted more than 120,000 registrants — ranging from high-school students to at least one octogenarian — and has spawned groups that have spontaneously formed worldwide to work together.

Agarwal said that while some universities have teamed up with for-profit companies to provide online classes, edX’s not-for-profit model is similar to one of the world’s most successful examples of online learning: Khan Academy, a set of online lessons aimed at K-12 students founded by MIT alumnus Salman Khan ’98, MEng ‘98. Khan “was a leader” in developing innovative ways of teaching online, Agarwal said.

MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif led an effort over the last five years that looked into ways to move the MIT classroom experience into an online environment, which culminated last December in the announcement of MIT’s online education initiative, called MITx. The goal of that project, as well as of the new edX collaboration, he said, “is to strengthen and enrich what we do on campus” by making use of the lessons learned about effective teaching methods, as well as the specific tools created for the online classes.