Take Harvard and MIT Classes for Free!

by Salary.com Staff - Original publish date: May 6, 2012

Two of the country's premier academic institutions -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University -- have joined forces to launch an online education initiative that might just "reinvent education," according to Anant Agarwal, president of the new program.

Dubbed edX, the program is based on MITx, a similar initiative launched by the science and technology school earlier this year. EdX will act as a sort of umbrella organization, allowing participating institutions to offer free, online courses from their curricula. Harvard and MIT are the initial partners in the program, but already other universities are expressing interest in participating, Agarwal said.

"We've had an extraordinary amount of interest from a large number of universities, in the United States and around the world," he said.

There will be no admissions requirements; anyone with an internet connection and the drive to learn can enroll. The online courses are intended to be as rigorous as the versions offered to full-time students at Harvard and MIT. The online learning software platform used by edX was developed at MIT; courses will include videos, reading materials, and discussion forums that allow students to interact with instructors and each other.

Upon completion of courses, students will be able to pay a small fee to receive a certificate attesting that they mastered that material.

Agarwal expects edX to help spark progress in an educational system he said has not made any meaningful changes for a very long time.

"Colored chalk is one of the bigger inventions," he joked. "But computing technology has really changed the landscape of everything."

For students, the model will give would-be learners in any location and of any income level access to world-class course materials. For the institutions, the online platform allows them to assess what is effective in their instructional strategies and what can be improved.

"We have the opportunity to really understand how students are learning, what’s working, what’s not working," Agarwal said. "We can do research and analysis and, based on that, improve and advance the technology."

As MIT and Harvard roll out their joint initiative, a new study confirms the educational potential of online learning. Ithaka S+R, a digital education consulting firm, split university statistics students into two groups; one took the course in a classroom setting, while the other took a "hybrid" approach that included online instruction and limited classroom time.

The results suggest that, at least in some contexts, online education can be at least as effective as classroom-based courses. At the end of the term, the two groups scored approximately the same on three different measures of learning. And the group that took the hybrid course got to those scores more efficiently: They spent 1.7 fewer hours on coursework.

Though this report represents one of the first large-scale randomized studies of online education, the findings are promising for Agarwal, who predicts that projects like edX have the potential to "change the world."