Join 3,513 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


MITx + Harvardx = edX: "Wow. Wow. Huge."
May 2, 2012 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Harvard and MIT today announced a new partnership for offering free online courses, called edX.

If you're having trouble keeping up with online course offerings, Class Central lists the courses offered by Udacity, Coursera, and edX.

Coursera, MITx, Udacity previously: 1, 2, 3
posted by -jf- (37 comments total) 112 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Class Central was also previously mentioned in this comment.)
posted by -jf- at 2:20 PM on May 2, 2012


"God Decides to Stop Time For a Year While Gwint Catches Up On His Online Learning Bookmarks" --the FPP I always wish to see instead of "More Free Online Courses Become Available"
posted by gwint at 2:24 PM on May 2, 2012 [28 favorites]


Harvard! Hopefully more focus on serious humanities courses.
posted by stbalbach at 2:32 PM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


Fascinating. If a few years you'll probably be able to get the intellectual equivalent of a college education for free. It will be awesome to see scumbag organizations like Kaplan University and other 'for profit' online universities get put out of business, but in order for that to happen there needs to be a certification or degree along with the actual learning.

Maybe someone will create the equivalent of a GED for a bachelors. You go, take the test in a secure room, and if you pass you get your diploma in field X.

Harvard and MIT won't go out of business themselves, of course, because a significant part of their value is the ability to network with future elites.
posted by delmoi at 3:02 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


If a few years you'll probably be able to get the intellectual informational equivalent of a college education for free.

FTFY
posted by R. Schlock at 3:06 PM on May 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


I will take these courses.

Just as soon as I change into my new properly brand consulted online student identity.

STEPHENx
posted by srboisvert at 3:11 PM on May 2, 2012


Will their mobile platform be called iedX?
posted by R. Schlock at 3:13 PM on May 2, 2012


This is bad news for my latest venture edXXX, "the most pleasurable way to get your degree in massage therapy, one-handed stenography..."
posted by nowhere man at 3:50 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


If a few years you'll probably be able to get the intellectual equivalent of a college education for free.

In theory, we've always been able to get this for free, so long as you had access to a good library. (Yes, I know that is a significant caveat for many, many people.) It just doesn't come with the expensive piece of paper.

In the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, they have these really cool quotations. I wrote down several of them, but the one that sticks out for me right now is this: "THE TRUE UNIVERSITY OF THESE DAYS IS A COLLECTION OF BOOKS"
posted by dfm500 at 3:55 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If anyone is interested, my online college, Holy Assumption Rowley Valley Among Rosary and Dean and Mary In Trees is offering online courses too!
posted by parmanparman at 4:00 PM on May 2, 2012


Fascinating. If a few years you'll probably be able to get the intellectual equivalent of a college education for free. It will be awesome to see scumbag organizations like Kaplan University and other 'for profit' online universities get put out of business, but in order for that to happen there needs to be a certification or degree along with the actual learning.

I was just at a meeting with the Chancellor of a major state university system who was trying to float ideas on how to turn all of these free online courses from MIT, Harvard, Stanford into some kind of degree program, if done in some kind of conjunction with an actual university. Cheaper for state schools, more degrees rendered for the people, etc.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:01 PM on May 2, 2012


This is bad news for my latest venture edXXX, "the most pleasurable way to get your degree in massage therapy, one-handed stenography..."

I have short hand already
posted by parmanparman at 4:02 PM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, now I really feel like a chump for paying full price!
posted by snofoam at 4:04 PM on May 2, 2012


Man, now I really feel like a chump for paying full price!

I don't. Or rather, since I mostly had my schooling paid for with grants, fellowships, and a few loans, I should say that I don't feel like a chump for spending the time to do it full time and in person. There is something fantastic (and that I still miss every day, for all that I am happy not being an academic) about being embedded in a community of scholars, and things you can learn in person and through discussion that you'll never learn from a book or online.

But that said, I also think it's fantastic that these kinds of courses are being offered, and increasingly for free. As noted above, this is not a competition for the regular classes at Harvard or your local State U -- but with the addition of being able to get some kind of credential, this would be a total kick in the teeth to the less ethical of the for-profit schools. Whether the credential comes directly from Harvard, or from a State U like Lutoslawski describes, doesn't really matter and I'm sure will take experimentation over time to sort out.
posted by Forktine at 4:18 PM on May 2, 2012


I was just kidding, of course. I also loved college, and as much as I also love having terrific online courses available, it is only part of the experience. That said, maybe I just need to start watching these courses...on weed.
posted by snofoam at 4:34 PM on May 2, 2012


This is awesome, and yet I can't help thinking 'great, more cool free stuff I'll never comprehend.'

hahahaha oh man Coursera your crypto class is so out there - 'mostly self-contained' is so much filthy, filthy lies, I love you guys, you are so fantastic but that stuff was so over my head it broke the sound barrier as it flew by.
posted by zennish at 4:49 PM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Essay-grading is a particular bone of contention. MIT said it would eventually crowd-source that task to students or employ automated-grading computer programs, colloquially known as “robo-readers.” But many professors at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere do not believe the technology is adequate.

Yeah, I was waiting for this part - who is going to do all the grading? I am not convinced that crowd sourcing would work terribly well. Who sets the standards? Who is checking for plagiarism? How do you know the people doing the grading are competent to grade? And I don't have any faith in robo-grading, sorry.

What I will really be interested in, assuming they publish these data, will be the retention rates for these courses, along with the geographic distribution. In the online courses at my university, probably the most common reason for F's is due to people registering for the class and then never even logging on, or else logging one once or twice and then disappearing. And the rate of withdrawals is much higher for online classes than for the regular on campus classes. It will be really interesting to see how many people stay motivated enough to finish these courses.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:12 PM on May 2, 2012


I hope this does represent an, er… paradigm shift, but I keep wondering about the value of these courses in practice. I hope someone can help me brainstorm.

At least in the sciences and technical subjects, one has long been able to follow along with courses at real universities. Choose a university, go to their registrar's page, look at the schedule of classes and the list of required books for each class. In the case of most classes in math and science, the textbook is the main resource; lectures and office hours are supplemental. Many courses also have publicly accessible class websites with syllabi and assignments.

Again, in the majority of cases, an instructor can make the subject easier or more difficult and more or less pleasant. But I would argue that in the maths and sciences at the university level, the instructor doesn't bring the subject to life. If you can't learn physics from a book, an instructor will not make you learn physics. An instructor may help you overcome your lack of motivation or clear up an unclear point, but is not the main vector of transmission. This is unlike soft subjects like history or film studies, where the instructor's lecture is the material, instead of a recapitulation of the material.

So, what is the practical benefit of taking one of these courses? Obviously, there is no credential at the end. You can't put these things on a resume, just like you can't put "I read a book about DSP once."

Some of these courses fit within the framework of a general humanistic education. It's conceivable that someone might want to take a course on the Italian Renaissance for its own sake. That's one niche these courses could occupy. But, apart from the cachet a big name lends, they don't have the niche to themselves. One could, again, read one or more detailed, authoritative books that are available for most subjects. Many large art galleries and museums offer docent-led tours, classes in art appreciation, and so on. Serious question: what does the course add in this case, apart from the fact that you get to hear someone talking on tape?

Finally, there is the majority of courses that are too technical to reasonably consider them accessible or inherently fun: circuits, or databases, or whatever. I doubt many people want to take a course on circuits because of an inherent love of the subject. I propose that it's easiest to measure the value of these courses by their ability to impart measurable skills. If you go to college and take a course on circuits, you should be able to analyze a circuit (implement a database, design an algorithm).

So, are these courses more effective in this respect than a book? I remember a MeFite's comment about studying vector calculus from video lectures: he said that he was happy with his understanding of the subject, but found himself completely unable to work problems. With courses on practical subjects that are ostensibly designed to cultivate a demonstrable skill — what is the value of learning "about" such a subject? This is not a rhetorical question.

I hope there is real value in these course offerings. I hope someone can share his or her story of taking one of these courses. I hope someone can point out a measurable benefit. On the other hand, I can imagine a lot of superficial "benefits" these courses offer: the self-esteem boost of "taking a Harvard course"; the pride of false mastery of a subject that demands rigor and hard work over an extended period of time; and so on.

It is my fondest wish that these courses can genuinely teach laypeople about compilers and cosmology and crazy crap like that. Because if they don't, they could turn out to be just so much self-congratulatory mental masturbation. Are they?
posted by Nomyte at 5:23 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


My grandfather helped build Yale. As his father had also had to do, he dropped out of school in the sixth grade to become a bricklayer in New Haven. During the Depression, he sold oranges on the corner of Church and Chapel, in the shadows of the University, to feed his kids. He finished his high-school education by taking night courses while working a walking route selling life insurance, and eventually, incredibly, had become a Vice-President of Prudential Insurance in Boston by the time he retired in the 60's. He never stopped studying, never stopped learning, which helped him take advantage of the opportunities made available to him during his time in America, and he made sure his children carried forward what he had learned, a sense of the value of education not just for the opportunity to succeed, but for its own sake.

I mentioned edX to my mother on the phone a few minutes ago. She confirmed that my grandfather would have flipped over this.

I hope this program has the same effect on some other bricklayer's kid in Cork or Karachi or Camden, New Jersey, and that nobody stands in the way of them educating and working themselves into a better life. God knows we all stand to benefit.
posted by Kinbote at 5:36 PM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


The equity gains from this kind of project are obvious; kids (and non-kids) without money and access, both inside and outside the United States, have access to (some of) an elite US education.

But it seems very realistic to imagine that you'll eventually be able to get a credential online, a credential that people will accept as real. That's not just a threat to Kaplan and U. Phoenix, it's a threat to every traditional university, with the possible exception of places like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford that will offer a credential so elite as to trump the generic one available on the cheap.

As I said, there are obvious massive educational gains associated with that. On the other hand, the research enterprise in the United States is funded right now by virtue of the fact that it's bundled with the ability to provide bachelor's degrees. Take that away, and I think you see a future in which very few people are doing basic research in math, physics, psychology, economics, history, biology, etc. -- unless we can figure out another way to pay for it. The government certainly won't.

I blogged about this at greater length.
posted by escabeche at 5:52 PM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


So that's my question: apart from the credentialing question, what is the added value of the video lecture and the automated assignments?

I have a hard time imagining most of these courses getting by on lectures alone. Is a book provided for each such course (in PDF, for example)? Is the provided book as good (comprehensive, rigorous, etc.) as a book used in the classroom?

If a book is not provided but must be bought instead, how does that affect the value of the course?

Is the course an effective tool for building proficiency in a skill?

If not, then these courses should be classified as enrichment and not education. That's all I'm trying to say.
posted by Nomyte at 6:27 PM on May 2, 2012


Snobs!
posted by stargell at 6:28 PM on May 2, 2012


I've wondered the same things numlyte is asking.
posted by jayder at 6:31 PM on May 2, 2012


Nomyte, I mean.
posted by jayder at 6:31 PM on May 2, 2012


I wonder whether this will lead to an educational ecosystem where people are able to assemble an education from many sources rather than spending four years at one institution.

In publishing, we are seeing the end of the issue — the daily, weekly or monthly paper package delivered to you — in favor of what has been called atomization, or the assembly of a personal news stream from many different sources. There are parallel trends in the consumption of video and music. In all these cases, supply is being disaggregated.

And in publishing, video and music, this disaggregation has led to lots of new business models including aggregation, curated content streams, personalized news streams, etc. (Just think about Flipboard, for example.)

So in education, it's possible that once the model is blown up and sufficiently disaggregated, you'll see the rise of such services as educational aggregators who assemble personalized curricula from many sources — and perhaps these entities, and not the institutions originating the educational content, are the ones that offer credentials.
posted by beagle at 6:39 PM on May 2, 2012


@escabeche : The question about research and funding is really interesting. Your blog post is worth a read.

The possible separation of teaching, certification and research that currently occur at Universities could well have a considerable impact on research funding.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science puts Basic R & D at 60 Bn up about 50% since 1991 in constant dollars.

It's not clear if this figure includes the cross subsidy from tuition fees.

Also, it's pretty likely that the humanities would receive less funding were teaching to be decoupled from research.
posted by sien at 7:20 PM on May 2, 2012


Maybe someone will create the equivalent of a GED for a bachelors.

Next: the PhGED!

Also, I imagine numlyte being the Bizarro Nomyte.
posted by XMLicious at 7:37 PM on May 2, 2012


It is my fondest wish that these courses can genuinely teach laypeople about compilers and cosmology and crazy crap like that. Because if they don't, they could turn out to be just so much self-congratulatory mental masturbation. Are they?

You say "mental masturbation" like it's a bad thing. I've taken/am taking several of these courses purely for fun and to stretch my mind out, with no expectation of any practical benefit other than the dubiously measurable one of gaining a better understanding (which in my case would be any understanding) of machine learning or compilers or whatever. That said, most of the courses I've checked out do feel at least approximately college-level, and the quizzes and exercises do require some grasp of how to apply the course material to actual problems. (There's a lot of variation between the different sites here--Udacity courses are very gentle, pleasantly hand-holdy introductions to their subjects, while the MITx intro-to-circuits class feels almost exactly like a university intro-to-circuits class, (virtual) lab assignments and (free online) textbook and all. Individual Coursera courses seem to fall at different points between those poles.)

So, are these courses more effective in this respect than a book?

For me, they're more effective in the sense that, due to whatever lack of mental discipline on my part, I'm much more likely to finish a course with assignments and deadlines than to finish the equivalent textbook. I'd certainly learn a lot more by working my way through the entire 900-page book on circuits that's provided with the MITx course, but 1) I almost certainly wouldn't read the whole thing (and if I did I would almost certainly stop doing the exercises somewhere around chapter three), and 2) as you point out, the same could be said of many if not most college math and science courses--I'm not sure I ever took a class that thoroughly covered everything in the book, except in a couple of cases where the book had been written specifically for that class.

Even if someday the range and quality of online courses really is comparable to what you could find at a good university, I'm pretty sure online education won't render the university system obsolete any time soon, nor do I think it would be a good thing if it did. A lot of the hype around online education feels way overblown to me. But it's definitely possible to learn something substantial from these courses. For example, a few months ago I probably couldn't have told you what "voltage" meant (I learned the rudiments of that stuff in freshman E&M, but it all trickled out of my brain along with Stokes' theorem and the principal parts of the classical Greek verb). Now I can build a (virtual) NAND gate or find the Thevenin equivalent of a simple linear circuit. Pretty cool!
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:42 PM on May 2, 2012


Some folks I'm close to are running a MOOC with Dr. Curtis Bonk of IU using CourseSites. Should be fun for Ed tech geeks.
posted by humanfont at 9:01 PM on May 2, 2012


But it seems very realistic to imagine that you'll eventually be able to get a credential online, a credential that people will accept as real.

You can already do this. My large, public university offers more than 40 online degrees. The admissions process is the same; the diploma is the same. Your transcript doe snot give any indication that your courses were completed online. So your degree doesn't look any different than the student's who took all classes on campus, or took 50/50, or 60/40 or whatever. And we are certainly not the only university that does this.

But I really don't see online education as any sort of threat to brick and mortar education. I have seen students who thrived in online classes, and I think online education fills a niche for a very specific type of student. Your typical 18 year old college freshman, however is just not that type of student. If anything, I think online education has much more of a draw for nontraditional students, and so rather than taking away from traditional universities, it is allowing them to expand their reach. That's why so many are getting into the online game - to compete with the for-profits for the working adult who want to start/finish his/her education. And they do want the credential - so until they can get an actual diploma from Harvard or MIT from taking these free courses, one that they can use to get that raise at work, I think these free online initiatives will serve more of the enrichment purpose as described by DaDaDaDave. And I certainly think that's a good thing.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:37 PM on May 2, 2012


But I really don't see online education as any sort of threat to brick and mortar education.

Is that still true if someone's selling you the chance to get a legitimate degree for $500? Universities are some of the most wonderful places in the United States, but if you can offer half the intellectual benefits and most of the career benefits at a hundredth of the cost, you're going to get some takers.
posted by escabeche at 10:04 PM on May 2, 2012


Is that still true if someone's selling you the chance to get a legitimate degree for $500?

Well I suppose that depends - are you talking about someone offering an entire 4-year degree online, with grades and everything, for $500? Then yes, a lot of people will probably sign up for that. But I still think most of those will drop out/fail out, because online degrees, ones that are truly aiming to be the equivalent of a face-to-face classroom, are hard..

I don't see how a $500 college degree is sustainable, though. Teaching online, if you are actually teaching and not "robo-grading," is more work, not less. Somebody has to get paid to do that.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:01 AM on May 3, 2012


Yes; this would mean robo-grading. Would it be as educational as college is now? No. But something that's half as good (or a third as good, or a tenth as good) and drastically cheaper can drive out something better and more expensive. It happens all the time.
posted by escabeche at 7:19 AM on May 3, 2012


Would a University of Phoenix education be more valuable if it was 90% cheaper?
posted by Nomyte at 10:12 AM on May 3, 2012


But something that's half as good (or a third as good, or a tenth as good) and drastically cheaper can drive out something better and more expensive.

Yes, if employers start accepting this credential in place of traditional 4-year college degrees. Will they? I don't know. Certainly right now my state government thinks employers want a college-educated workforce, because that's why they're pushing us to get out more people with degrees.

I am personally not worried about any massive transition happening any time soon, and again, I think the percentage of people who can be successful in online programs will still be fairly small. It doesn't matter if it's cheap if you can't finish the program.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:31 PM on May 3, 2012


Would a University of Phoenix education be more valuable if it was 90% cheaper?

I don't know about more valuable, but it would be a better deal.
posted by atrazine at 10:25 AM on May 4, 2012


Nomyte: In the case of most classes in math and science, the textbook is the main resource; lectures and office hours are supplemental.

In my experience of undergrad math courses, this is true in the first year but false by the fourth.
posted by stebulus at 11:10 AM on May 4, 2012


« Older Robot hair washer...  |  FlyRights... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments