MOOCs from the world’s best universities: MIT and Harvard gamble on open-source, free edX for everyone, everywhere – insights from swissnex Boston

The last two years have witnessed the latest development in higher education: the onset of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Claimed to be the downfall of the traditional form of higher education and to pose an imminent threat to the contemporary university model, MOOCs have gained a lot of attention from educational institutions, but have yet to prove to be a viable alternative for meeting the needs of the education sector. In the meantime, universities worldwide are carefully observing and assessing this latest trend of offering courses online to students. Even top tier, traditional Ivy League schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have succumbed to the MOOCs fever and have cooperatively founded their own MOOC platform called edX. Written by Felix Moesner, swissnex Boston

edX offers free online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities

edX, which celebrated its two year birthday this past May, is an open source, not-for-profit platform that offers online classes at no charge. MIT and Harvard invested jointly $60 million on the initiative, that today counts with 47 participating schools, including two Swiss universities – ETH Zurich and EPFL. In collaboration with several university partners – which form the xConsortium – edX provides over 200online courses in many areas of study, including humanities, math, computer science, and physics. “In just two years of operation, edX has managed to accumulate 1.8 million registered learners and over 3 million enrollments”, said Lee Rubenstein, Vice President of edX. In addition to its educational objective, edX has also committed itself to conducting further research on how students learn and to elaborate on successful teaching techniques with this research. The assessment of the students interaction with the website through click rates, the time spent on specific pages of the site, as well as the feedback the students provide on specific topics of the courses, enable researchers and teachers to improve not only the course platform, but also its content in order to better meet the students’ needs. The results of the studies performed by the xConsortium partners are subsequently published online on the edX website..

Open Source brings Education for Everyone, Everywhere

Keeping edX as an open source platform has helped the young NPO advance and excel in the vast field of emerging MOOCs. This strategy has not only positioned edX as the platform of choice for free online courses, but it has also encouraged collaboration from partners all over the world who want to transform teaching and learning in higher education. “Three countries, China, Jordan, and Mexico, have already taken the plunge to work with edX to power their own online learning portals”, explained Lee Rubenstein. With the successful opening of XuetangX, an edX open source platform powering China’s newest and largest online learning portal in Mandarin ( see post about China), edX was able to proudly announce the launch of Edraak this past May. The latter is the first non-profit Arab MOOCs platform in the world. This underscores the innovative characteristics of edX within a highly competitive field. Furthermore, the first French language MOOC platform – the France Université Numérique (FUN), as well as the first Spanish language MOOC platform, initiated by Mexico, will both be launched in Autumn 2014, using the edX open source platform. These newly founded platforms aim to bring world-class education to millions of learners around the globe and in various languages, in accordance with edX’s objective to guarantee access to education for everyone. The latter aspect is especially important for edX as three quarters of the MOOCs participants live outside of the U.S. This underscores edX’s mission to educate people all over the world.

Failed Hiring Mechanism

Despite this success, edX has acknowledged there exists a gap between meeting industry needs for a highly skilled workforce and assisting college graduates in finding employment. edX’s first attempt to help connect employers with qualified job applicants – students who successfully completed their online courses – through a pilot job-placement program failed after just one year. After recruiting more than 868 top tier students from a computer science MOOCs program at the University of California at Berkley, edX attempted to match the graduates with a select group of major technology companies. However, only 3 out of the 868 student applicants reviewed were invited for an interview, and ultimately none were hired. Clearly, one of the key challenges edX must face is addressing the current perception towards online education. When vetting applicants, the industry sectors are still seeking candidates that possess a traditional college education. In addition, the high dropout rates within the MOOC programs, approximately 95 percent of student enrollment, significantly hampers the process, putting in doubt the credibility of MOOCs in the eyes of employers. To address this, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have proposed levying fees to students who sign up for the MOOCs but fail to complete them. However, MIT and Harvard have not introduced a policy of this nature. Currently, edX is attempting to increase the retention rate of students by assessing their learning patterns and behavior and adjusting the courses and programs accordingly.

Complementary to traditional courses

To address the issue of MOOCs credibility, the Harvard Business School has adopted a new approach with the online education program it debuted on June 11th: HBX. Instead of undermining the school’s existing curriculum by offering a set of free or inexpensive online courses that are already taught in traditional format at the Harvard Business School, the HBX program offers a new segment of introductory M.B.A. courses designed to complement the Harvard Business School program, with tuition for HBX courses costing up to $1,500. These online courses are geared mostly towards undergraduate sophomores, juniors and seniors. However, the courses specifically target students that are interested in an introduction to the fundamentals of business thinking – as the courses are neither compulsory to initiate an MBA, nor are they a guarantee of acceptance into an MBA program. In addition, only students that maintain a high level of participation are invited to the three-hour final exam at a testing facility. Through this strategy, HBX complements the school’s traditional program of business education while establishing a high level of quality within the program.

In response to the failed pilot job-placement program and the possible success of HBX as a remunerated and complementary education program, edX has now started to redefine its strategy and reposition itself with fee-based services for different clients. These services include hosting and providing technical support for institutions that use edX’s open-source platform OpenEdX. In addition, non-xConsortium members who use some of the courses provided by edX will pay a fee in the range of $50 to $100 per-student for a license to adopt a MOOC for use in their curriculum. These fee-based services represent an additional method of generating revenue from MOOCs, and will allow edX to become self-sufficient. The approach consists of paid partnerships with universities. University affiliates can choose one of two partnership models available, which offer the universities the opportunity to create and upload their own MOOCs once the appropriate fees to edX have been satisfied.

Monotone Education

Since the initial introduction of MOOCs, the question of whether to provide online courses for free or at a cost to students has been a source of much debate. One of the potential downfalls cited against free online courses is the effect a decrease in the number of paying students enrolled at an institution will have on the educational institution’s endowment. However, some educators do not believe that the introduction of free MOOCs will disrupt the upper echelon of higher education any time soon. The reputation of universities like MIT and Harvard, and the value of their degrees, will continue to provide these institutions with enough students and revenue to sustain their endowments. However, the introduction of MOOCs can pose a threat to less renowned colleges and universities that lack a world-class standing. Furthermore, opponents of MOOCs argue that online courses cannot substitute traditional educational courses altogether, but can, instead, complement them. In this regard, critics point to the way MOOCs currently operate. The conventional MOOCs operate as a one-way path for the transmission of knowledge from professor to students, with the receptive student audience consisting of the screens of the MOOCs participants. Any dialogue and direct interaction between students and professors is limited to discussions on blogs and/or online chats. HBX, however, has attempted to tackle this problem by creating a new digital architecture that accommodates and allows for a discussion-based style of learning – the preferred methodology at the Harvard Business School. The availability of more interactive elements and the increased opportunity for active contributions from the community of learners creates the notion of a ‘classroom environment’. In addition, there is the added benefit of seeing and hearing the live video and audio of the participants arranged in a horseshoe configuration, provided by 60 high-definition screens. With this technology, HBX can establish the classroom dynamic within its MOOCs, enabling the opportunity for discussions and input from the students with the professors. This interaction is the basis for critical thinking and represents an important feature of university education. A similar approach has been adopted by GatherEducation, a virtual learning platform hosting online classes. “GatherEducation allows for virtual interaction and collaboration between instructors and students, in the same fashion as a physical classroom, by offering the option of a group voice chat; of using a collaborative black board; of providing real-time feedback and polling; and by limiting enrollment to a maximum of 21 students in each course”, explains Stephen Baker ofGatherEducation.

Who has the ownership of a MOOCs course?

Another problem that many MOOC providers have encountered centers on the question of intellectual property rights, and what happens when educators move between institutions. MOOC providers current position on the matter is to adopt and honor any policies their university partners may already have in place. The question of intellectual property is, therefore, left in the hands of the educational institutions to resolve. Both MIT and Harvard have announced plans to introduce intellectual property policies in the coming months. MIT’s new policy will include language that states the institution’s “mission has generally been best served by allowing the individual faculty members to decide when, how, and in what form [teaching materials] should be disseminated.” In the case where content for MOOCs has been created through significant use of MIT’s resources, faculty departing from MIT will retain their rights to teach their courses elsewhere, however, without the use of any recordings produced for the MOOCs. In this instance, MIT retains the footage for the MOOCs and retains the license to continue broadcast the MOOCs.

In spite of the critics who predict a disruption resulting from MOOCs, edX will continue its mission to provide online courses for everyone, everywhere. Future partners will most likely follow the suit of China and Jordan, increasing the number of courses available online in foreign-languages, and encouraging more and more institutions to provide valuable input to edX. The question of whether edX will continue to operate offering MOOCs at no cost – or, for that matter, whether the rise of MOOCs will result in the demise of universities – remains unknown.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s