Harvard and MIT Launch Virtual Learning Initiative EdX

UPDATED: MAY 4, 2012, AT 3:56 A.M.

Come fall, anyone with an internet connection will have the opportunity to take classes from two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Wednesday that the two institutions will spend $30 million each to launch a joint online platform that makes lecture videos, class exercises, and quizzes available online to learners anywhere.

The digital courses will be free. But for a fee—which administrators said has not yet been determined—participants will have the option of receiving a certificate of mastery for completing a course.

Administrators said that these certificates will not count for credit toward a Harvard or MIT degree in the immediate future and that certificates will bear Harvardx and MITx monikers instead of the names of their parent institutions.


“There’s great excitement, on both sides, to have this impact not only what we’re doing on campus but to really change the way education is done across the world,” Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith said in a conference call with reporters.

Both institutions said that they plan to use the project—called edX in homage to MITx, the online learning portal that MIT launched this year—as a laboratory for their researchers to study how virtual learners interact with the system.

Researchers will be able to observe the amount of time students spend watching and rewinding videos and to examine correlations between students’ preferred learning methods and their performance on assessment.

“This is about experimentation; it’s about research; it’s about rethinking education,” said Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber ’76.

Steve Hargadon, founder of education website Classroom 2.0, said he believed that edX’s research function could improve learning for students taking courses both on campus and online.

“The truth is that a Harvard or MIT education is largely about the relationships and proximity that you have. How do you do this on the web? Well, we’re not sure.” said Hargadon, who is also the director of education project Web 2.0 Labs. “This [method] acknowledges that you can’t just put content online and have it make an impact.”

Administrators said that they hope that other universities will eventually join Harvard and MIT in offering courses on edX. As open source software, edX can be freely accessed and improved by other institutions.

MIT’s similar platform, which boasts instant feedback and modules that let students learn at their own pace, has had 120,000 students enroll since it debuted in February. Harvard currently offers courses online using a different platform through Harvard Extension School and Harvard Business School.

The new $60 million edX project will be managed by a nonprofit organization headed by Anant Agarwal, MIT’s director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and overseen equally by the two schools.

Though most experts said they believed that the introduction of edX signals a dramatic development in virtual education, they agreed that the traditional model of campus-based learning is not going anywhere soon.

“I would imagine that the bricks-and-mortar model will always have a place,” said Martha Stone Wiske, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who researches technology and innovation. “There is something very beneficial in being able to exchange ideas face to face.”

David A. Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, described the new offerings as another option in the “ecosystem” of higher education.

Despite the lofty aims of the new program, many practical aspects of its implementation still remain undecided.

“As you can detect, there’s a lot of questions that are unanswered as of today. That’s deliberate,” Garber said. “We need our faculty to be deeply engaged in the shaping of Harvardx.”

Administrators said that they will announce Harvardx’s fall course offerings over the summer. In a letter to Harvard faculty, Smith wrote that East Asian languages and civilizations professor Peter K. Bol, University Professor Gary King, and Computer Science Lecturer David J. Malan ’99 have agreed to consider how they may offer their courses through edX.

In the letter, Smith framed edX as a necessary adapation to Harvard maintaining its academic excellence.

“At every turning point, Harvard has always chosen to move forward,” Smith wrote. “By using these new technologies and the research they will make possible, we will be able to inform the conversation on technology-enabled teaching and at the same time provide virtual access to some of the best educational resources in the world.”

In a Crimson interview, University President Drew G. Faust spoke last week of higher education’s shift into the virtual realm.

“We are in a moment of transformation and we’re all sorting through the implications—how it will change what we’ll do in ways that expand what’s available to students enormously, but also expand the possibilities for higher education for people who have never had access to them before.”

—Radhika Jain contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at