PHILADELPHIA - In what has to be one of the most interesting developments in higher education in recent decades, some of the world’s top universities, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, have all begun to offer free online education to anyone with an internet connection.
This is revolutionary stuff, it means that people around the world (at least, those who speak English), can access top-quality higher education without paying a cent. The various initiatives of these schools offer an exciting model for the future of higher education, one in which knowledge is more accessible and opportunities for learning more equitable than ever before.
The most recent elite online learning project, edX, is joint venture between Harvard and MIT that was launched on Wednesday. Essentially, edX will offer a number of online courses, based on actual Harvard and MIT courses, to users anywhere in the world for free. The edX learning platform is based on MIT’s existing MITx, which already offers a number of online MIT courses. People who sign up for edX classes will use “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, [and] online laboratories” to learn about a range of subjects from the world’s top experts. EdX plans to announce its class offerings at some point between May and July, and to start offering courses from this coming September.
Now, completing an edX class will not earn you credit towards a Harvard or MIT degree; if you want a degree you’ll still have to cough up a couple of hundred thousand dollars and haul yourself out to Massachusetts. The organisation will, however, for a small fee provide “certificates of mastery” to students who are able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material. These will not be endorsed by MIT or Harvard, but will be a concrete indication that students have learned the material.
Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania have also teamed up on a similar project called Coursera, where users can take classes in fields ranging from computer science to economics to musicology, all for free and gratis. Like edX, Coursera courses involve the use of video instruction, interactive exercises, and peer assessment – all tools that are made possible by the internet.
Coursera courses also don’t count as credit towards degrees at the prestigious institutions that sponsor the institution. Nevertheless, they offer people around the world the opportunity to learn cutting edge material from the world’s best professors and experts for free – a remarkable thing.
Imagine the implications of all this for higher education in countries like South Africa, where resources are strained and higher education comes at a hefty cost. It’s possible, for example, to imagine an institution formed around the courses offered by Coursera and edX (and other institutions like Udacity, run by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun). Such an institution could use the materials provided online to teach students, and could then develop testing procedures to ensure that learning outcomes are met and quality is maintained. Ultimately, the Department of Education might even recognise such an institution as a legitimate institution of higher learning, and allow it to award recognised certificates or even degrees.
This could be a very positive thing for South Africa, or any other developing country in desperate need of improving the skills of its population. All that would be needed would be some computers, a decent internet connection, and a layer of management and testers who could oversee students’ learning and evaluate their progress. Initiatives like this have the potential to make higher education accessible, affordable, and even democratic.
Of course, a lot of work is still required. Currently Coursera, Udacity, and edX offer only a limited range of courses, and students require basic reading, writing, mathematical and analytical skills to have any hope of grasping the material taught on these platforms. In addition, since there is no formal accreditation for these courses, they are not recognised by would-be employers, although that could change as the years pass and innovative organisations figure out ways to use these resources.
Either way, initiatives like these offer the promise of a new world of education. Your children may well get a Harvard education (or something very much like it) from the comfort of their living rooms. It’s an exciting prospect.