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What to make of edX

Posted on May 6, 2012

Harvard and MIT announced last Wednesday that they will join forces to create a new online program offering free courses from both institutions.  They will invest $60m in edX, as they have dubbed the joint venture, and while the massively open online courses (MOOCs) they offer will not carry credit, MIT’s offerings will include assessments and a certificate of mastery.  Harvard has not yet committed to a similar form of validation.

Because these are two of the world’s elite universities, the announcement has been widely covered and widely discussed.  My sense is that Harvard and MIT have rushed in to claim some of the attention that has been going to Stanford.  A number of high profile elite offerings have come out of Stanford including Coursera (bringing together Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Michigan), Udacity, the for-profit spinoff created by former Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun (attracting tens of thousands of students), and Minerva, another Stanford incubated project that seeks to create an elite hybrid university.  It’s all been Stanford, Stanford, Stanford and quickly overshadowed was MITx, launched in March.  Harvard had nothing to overshadow and was absent from the party.

The stated goals of edX revolve around building a new open delivery platform to be shared with other universities (a very good thing) and conducting research to better understand teaching and learning online (ahem….that’s been going on for a long time now, but sure, join the party).  Presumably, edX will also serve to put world class content and open courses in the hands of those who might not otherwise have access.   All three of those goals – platform, open courses/content, and a better understanding of online learning — are beyond reproach.

Have MIT and Harvard committed $60m to wholly altruistic ends?  My guess is as follows:

  • That the good people charged with making edX a reality will work toward those goals with good faith and diligence not matter what motives drive the creation of the entity;
  • That MIT and Harvard will want to monetize their MOOCs at some point, though insiders say they have no sense whatsoever of what that business model might look like and how to reconcile it with the publically stated goals;
  • That the new partnership was hastily assembled without much of a plan and mostly to stake a claim in the elite MOOC land rush, though they have little sense of what to plant when in those soon to be tilled fields.

While they may have little understanding of what business they are building and how, and while there is an inherent disconnect in brands built on exclusivity now being open to all (sort of, not really), undeniable is the global appeal of the MIT and Harvard brands (edX not so much) and the attention they will get, at least for a while.

So how are we to think about this recent arrival on the online landscape?  Here are the things that seem most certain to me:

  • They just made online learning legitimate and respectable.  Res ipso loquitur.         
  • While there is already an awful lot of excellent content out there for lower level courses, if edX really makes high quality upper level courses and content free, it will be a substantial contribution to the educational marketplace. 

Whatever else happens, these are good things.  After that things get cloudier.

What do MIT and Harvard think they are offering beyond the above stated outcomes?  Completing edX courses will prove that you have done something very hard.  However, it won’t get you MIT or Harvard credits or a diploma.  It won’t get you their value-added network of the very smart, privileged, and soon to be really, really well connected.  It won’t give you the uplift that comes from smaller groups of people, as or more smart than you, engaged in sharp, energetic discourse in class or back in a dorm room.  It won’t get you social status (“If you were really smart you’d have gotten into the real MIT or Harvard….”).  In some sectors, most likely tech, it might get you a job if with your certificate of mastery you can demonstrate your actual ability to do stuff.

Would edX ever offer the non-credit mirror of a full degree program with certifying assessments?  As Lloyd Armstrong suggests (, it’s hard to imagine that these exclusive brands will offer a free version of their academic degree programs.  There is no real model for doing so.

Nevertheless, the enterprise raises really interesting questions that include:

  1. What happens if employers actually start accepting edX certificates (and degrees if ever offered)?  That could open the floodgate for a rush of new non-accredited, non-credit bearing educational offerings.  Game changer.
  2. Will some enterprising sort create a new educational venture that offers what edX won’t, a value-add to their open courses?  This might include something more akin to small groups under the guidance of a domain expert, tutoring, and even a residential component (“You can challenge yourself with MIT/Harvard courses while living in an island paradise….” – build it in the Caymans).
  3. Can federal financial aid policy ever adjust to the new models (the answer is “no,” by the way)?
  4. Will edX try to prevent institutions from using their ostensibly open courses?  If not, there will be a genuine dilution of their brand value, though ‘m not sure they get that point.
  5. Is this another bolder entry into the online market space by elite universities akin to what we saw in the late 90s and will it similarly fail?
  6. What is the real market for these courses?  Who do they serve?  I am pretty sure it is not the mass of students who currently enroll in large scale online programs.  I’m not sure of this initial wave of interest will sustain. I’d love to know a lot more about the small percentage of students who actually complete (remember though that even as the percentage remains small, the numbers are huge).

As the higher education delivery model becomes increasingly disaggregated, I believe universities will increasingly become the curators of learning on the front end and the certifiers of mastery or learning on the back end of the educational process, but delivery will be an increasingly open playing field.  At least on the course level, edX seems to move us closer to that reality and that is by itself an intriguing contribution to the movement.

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