Harvard, MIT partner to offer free online courses


In a move that heightened competition in online education and brought more prestige to the still-fledgling field, Harvard University and MIT announced a partnership Wednesday to offer the public mainly free Internet classes.

Harvard and MIT are each donating $30 million to create a nonprofit organization, to be called “edX” that will develop an Internet platform for the classes and design new ways to teach and learn with technology, according to the two Cambridge, Mass., schools. They will join an emerging arena in which other research universities, Stanford among them, and private ventures around the world are trying to stake out territory.

The first five or so free classes are expected to be offered in the fall, and the number will expand in subsequent years from the Harvard-MIT partnership and other universities that may join it, officials said. The classes will not earn online students academic credits, although students may receive a certificate of completion, for which they might be charged a fee. In addition, other online education courses that already charge tuition may also become part of the effort and continue to require fees.

“MIT’s and Harvard’s mission is to provide affordable education to anybody who wants it,” Anant Agarwal, an MIT computer science and artificial intelligence expert who is edX’s first president, said in an interview. “Millions of people in the world don’t have access to quality education.”

The project will decide later whether to raise revenue through related job placement services and advertising. “It’s definitely a work in progress,” Agarwal said.

Many for-profit schools offer online programs for tuition, while the nonprofit Western Governors University is carving out a niche for low-cost degrees.

Given the institutions’ prestige, the Harvard-MIT collaboration is a significant development, according to Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Assn. of American Universities, the organization of top research campuses. “Clearly there have been increasing efforts to understand how to provide high-quality education online and what produces a good learning outcome,” Toiv said. But he added that the future remains murky.

Stanford also has been a pioneer in free online education, offering 13 classes this school year. The Stanford courses are mainly offered through a company and website called Coursera, founded by two Stanford professors and also joined by Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. Another Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, founded Udacity, a website offering free online classes.

“We are all trying it out and see where it goes,” said John Mitchell, a Stanford computer science professor who is heading that school’s global online education efforts.

In contrast to paid online degree programs that Stanford and other schools offer, the university’s free online courses do not carry credit. Still, tens of thousands of students have completed the courses, he said.

The University of California is in the early stages of a different model, partly as a way to reduce instruction costs. So far this year, UC has started six undergraduate online courses but only for UC students, according to Daniel Greenstein, UC’s vice provost for academic planning. Greenstein said the Harvard, MIT and Stanford efforts for free classes are exciting because they represent “an opportunity to educate the world.”