When the number of people enrolling in Stanford’s original experiment in free online learning exceeded expectations by an order of magnitude, educators, the media and policy makers took notice. But when Harvard and MIT each contributed $30 million to create the online learning non-profit edX (which I’ve been inadvertently calling EdX until now), it was clear that the “Year of the MOOC” had arrived.
Beyond the financial and intellectual capital these two institutions brought to the Massive Open Online Course game, the founding partners also had other important assets that shot the organization to the top of the MOOC providers list in less than a year. These included:
- MIT’s decade of experience in providing access to its curriculum materials through an OpenCourseWare initiative that’s been running since 2002
- Engineering and business leadership from institutions long involved with applying academic/technical breakthroughs and business acumen to solving pressing social problems. (Anant Agarwal, edX’s current President, has long and deep experience bridging the worlds of business, academia and technology)
- A centuries-long tradition of academic trend setting (i.e., “As Harvard Goes, So Goes Everyone Else”)
edX is certainly not the first partnership of brand-name universities to dedicate itself to making their learning assets more widely available to the public. For instance, AllLearn was a 2002 partnership between Yale, Stanford and Oxford Universities that provided online access to over 100 high-quality courses. But AllLearn shut its doors four years later, partly as a result that year’s dot-com bust, but partly because the infrastructure needed to make bandwidth-hungry online education available to all was still not in place back then.
AllLearn and other early betters on online university learning also lacked an obvious way to make money from their offerings, an issue that comes up frequently with regard to today’s MOOC providers, including for-profit companies like Coursera and Udacity, and non-profits like edX which wants to eventually generate enough revenue to sustain itself without ongoing cash infusions from the founding partners.
For now, however, edX has the breathing space to experiment with new technologies, new markets (including a significant commitment to making their materials available in the Third World) and new ways of imagining online learning.
It is in this last area that some of the most interesting work from edX has emerged. For instance, I am currently enrolled in two edX courses: Justice, taught by Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard and The Ancient Greek Hero, taught by Professor Gregory Nagy (also from Harvard).
While each class taps into the learning management system developed by edX engineers (an open source platform that can itself be considered an important edX asset), the professors and developers involved with these classes have gone in different directions that reflect each professor’s educational philosophy.
Justice, for example, is based on Professor Sandel’s hugely popular ethics class that usually fills Memorial Hall with hundreds of students. And Sandel has taken his show on the road, giving shortened versions of the class to even huger audiences abroad – a bit of educational entrepreneurship that has gotten the attention of MOOC boosters such as the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.
Because the course was already “packaged” for travel and presentation before big groups, the move online was a natural stepping stone for Justice which offers a unique blend of high-quality video lectures (which capture informative interaction with Harvard students), sequences of reading and enforced interaction via prompted responses to ethical questions (such as whether a Utilitarian could justify the pain of a small number of Christians thrown to the lions, given the amount of pleasure such a spectacle would give to huge numbers of Roman audience members).
Nagy’s Greek Hero class is even more innovative, broken down as it is into a series of 24 “Hours,” with each hour consisting of a variety of readings (including close reading of key parts of epics like the Iliad and Odyssey), and video lectures which engage with critical passages of text, while also leaving room for digression into subjects such as anthropology, opera and science fiction.
Harvard Paleontology Professor Stephen J Gould once described his lecturing style as resembling the baseball pitcher who screws his body into an incomprehensible position which leaves the batter completely baffled as to what type of pitch is coming next until it successfully reaches the plate.
In a similar way, Nagy is pulling his students through a learning experience where we never know whether the next Hour will include material from Homer, Hoffman or Schwarzenegger. But we do know we will have to engage very deeply with challenging texts, and even more challenging exercises (some of the most difficult I’ve encountered yet in any MOOC) which are all part of a quest to get us to think like Ancient Greeks, even if very few of us speak Ancient Greek (or, in the case of some students, English – at least as our first language).
The willingness to let professors craft unique and varying online courses is one of the best things to yet come out of edX. And with more institutions and courses coming through the pipeline of not just edX but of all the major MOOC providers, we’re at an interesting point in time where businesspeople are ready to be patient and let teachers, engineers and visionaries steer the MOOC boat in whatever direction they see fit (at least for now).