Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) today announced edX, a transformational new partnership in online education. Through edX, the two institutions will collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.
Coming on the heals of the appearance of Coursera, Udacity, and the edX precursor, MITx, this has led numerous commentators to suggest that we have entered a veritable age of aquarius for massively open online courses (MOOCs). All of these efforts involve, to one degree or another, universities of the very top rank and each will offer online versions of university level courses using the most advanced technologies. Further, all will be open to anyone who wants to sign up, and the courses will either be free or involve a very nominal cost for e.g. testing. Importantly, however, none of these efforts will lead to course credit, degree or certificate from the universities involved. Instead, successful students can hope for a signed letter of completion from their well-known instructor or a certificate from the organization
Preliminary results are very exciting, indeed. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, did an online course at Stanford that drew over 160,000 student, and Udacity has over 200,000 students signed up for its first six courses. MITx's first course enrolled about 120,000 students.
I view all of these efforts as really positive developments in a number of dimensions. First, the major universities are recognizing that online learning is part of the future of education. Harvard and MIT emphasize that through edX (and MITx), they will be testing new approaches to education that will end up enriching their traditional on-campus experience while offering high level online education to learners around the world. What a great win-win! There is also an enormous amount of really high-power technical expertise that is being focused on building new and better platforms for online education. While the MOOC grading technologies developed thus far are best suited to technical courses (e.g engineering), all of the efforts eventually will be experimenting with approaches to grading MOOC humanities courses. This is pushing into really interesting approaches to evaluation! It is also very positive that these courses from major institutions will be made available to learners worldwide at essentially no cost to the learner.
One concern I have is that all of the descriptions of the platforms emphasize the technology that has gone into them. Ultimately, however, it is not the best technology, but the best technology designed to support the best pedagogy that will will be most effective in producing the best learning. Is the technology being developed to support the best pedagogy, or is the usable pedagogy being defined by the characteristics of the technology? I would bet that the ultimate winners will do the former - which means bringing in people who are experts at learning at the very beginning of the technology design. It also means providing pedagogy support to the faculty who are creating the courses, since pedagogy is not the specialty of most faculty.
Several articles on this explosion of online ventures have referred to a similar explosion at the end of 1990's - an explosion that ended in a bust. Will this lead to a similar bust? I would venture a firm "yes and no."
The lesson I learned from the bust of the early 2000's was that although everyone was in favor of getting more education, they were only really interested in doing the hard work involved if they got a credential of value out of it at the end. Thus, we saw essentially no market at all for "recreational" education if the level and difficulty of the courses was high. Is that still true? Only time will tell, but it is suggestive that the attrition in the MOOCs has been very high so far. Strun's 160,000 enrollees dropped to about 20,000 by course end, and MITx's 120,000 enrollees have dropped to 10,000 by midterm. These are obviously courses that require a great investment of time and energy, and what one gains in the end is "simply" knowledge, but no useful credential. Of course, one can argue that 20,000 is several times the number of traditional students at Stanford, and so the number of students completing is still mind-boggling. True, but one has to question whether we are seeing inflated numbers of enrollees because of the novelty of the approach - is this reproducible over time?
My guess is that these numbers will not be reproducible over time, and that the number of recreational users of these courses will decrease as the newness wears off. This part of the market will be a "bust." However, I think there potentially is a huge market for these high quality products "repackaged" by others to provide credentialing. I can imagine lower ranked higher education institutions all over the world deciding that they cannot produce courses of the quality that can be obtained for free from these ventures and others that will surely spring up. These institutions are likely to see how they can incorporate these courses into their own programs, thus simultaneously increasing quality and decreasing instructional costs. These institutions then will provide the degrees and other credentials that will make the student's hard work worthwhile. This part of the market will be a "boom", and will meet the stated goals of most of these ventures to make high quality education available to students worldwide.
So why do I question in the title of this post whether edX is a step backward? I actually thought that MITx was a brilliant idea that solved one outstanding problem of great significance- at least to me. MITx will give a certificate to students that successfully complete a course. One could imagine that a few years from now, MITx would have the equivalent of entire degree programs on line. Students successfully completing the demanding sequence would not, of course, get an MIT degree, but rather a MITx "super-certificate" certifying their success in the entire degree program. They would not be equivalent to MIT grads, but because of the rigor of MITx courses, they would likely be better prepared than the grads of a large fraction of accredited schools. I believe that the MIT reputation is such that employers would see this MITx super-certificate as providing a meaningful description of the skill set of the recipient. In other words, the super-certificate would become a desired credential of value for students.
What problem does this solve? In higher education, brand is related to scarcity. Every highly ranked educational institution limits the number of students it has, and sets very high requirements for entry. This limits the potential for the highly ranked universities to educate large numbers of students or to educate students who are from a significantly different educational demographic. So at the end of the 1990's, a big question was, "how do we create a second brand that is less expensive and allows us to educate some population different from our normal customers?" There were no obvious models for creating a second brand. However, MITx looked to me like the desired second brand- infinitely expandable, appealing from the outset to a large new demographic, providing brand value without damaging the brand of the original - in fact, potentially increasing the brand of the original.
I don't believe that edX has this same potential. Multiple masters diffuse responsibility for course quality, and that diffusion will become even more obvious as other partners come on line. This diffusion would make an edX super-credential of considerably less value to employers, and thus of less value to students. Of course, it may well be that neither MITx nor edX ever plans offer the equivalent of a degree program, so all of these thoughts may be totally useless. But MITx could do something really revolutionary.