The presidents of MIT and Harvard had a major announcement this morning regarding EdX, a non-profit venture to make certain Harvard and MIT courses freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike MIT’s decades-old OpenCourseWare initiative, which basically involved posting course curricula and problem sets online along with a few videos, edX goes much further. MITx and soon HarvardX has more video, structure, community, and even testing mechanisms to students can track their progress. EdX will be an independent umbrella organization to help run the two programs and share certain resources.
EdX is not really news for MIT. MITx was announced late last year, and made a huge impact. Hundreds of thousands of students have signed up to take MIT’s science and engineering classes. MIT even announced that people completing a set of courses would receive some sort of non-degree certification. MITx (and Khan Academy) made a lot of universities wake up to the possibilities of supplemental learning for society at large. Harvard was apparently starting to feel left behind; a source told the Boston Globe that Harvard felt “we didn’t want to look like we were playing catch-up.” Indeed, while MITx is already operational and serving its mission, HarvardX won’t offer any classes until later this year.
In addition, I noticed something peculiar about the HarvardX side of the venture. Harvard has been running Internet-based distance education continually since the 1990s through the Harvard Extension School. The announcement said that EdX would be separate from this and other existing distance education offerings through the Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School. In the press conference, Harvard’s provost briefly mentioned the expertise that the Extension School had developed, but it looks like there is no connection between edX and the Extension School.
Indeed, I am wondering if the free Harvard offerings from edX will compete with the Extension School’s own desire to get paying students to “sample” Harvard courses online. If casual students see that they can sample Harvard courses for free via edX, why should they pay thousands of dollars to take an Extension School class online? The Extension School can say that they offer credit for online courses. But to casual students paying $2000 or more for educational credit that will probably never be used, this doesn’t seem like a good value considering Harvard-branded knowledge can be obtained elsewhere for free.