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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Berkeley Joins ‘EdX’ Effort to Offer Free Open Courses

07/24/2012

The Chronicle of Higher Education - July 24, 2012

Since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University unveiled their plan to create a platform for free online courses called edX, more than 120 other colleges and universities around the world have expressed interested in joining in. Today leaders of the effort announced that they’ve added the University of California at Berkeley as a partner, and that more institutions will eventually be admitted to the exclusive group.

While MIT and Harvard have both committed $30-million each to the project, Berkeley will not bring any money to the table. Instead, it will contribute technology—specifically, a new online-education platform that engineers at the university had already been working on, says John Wilton, Berkeley’s vice chancellor. The university will also teach two free courses through edX starting in the fall: one on artificial intelligence and another on “software as a service.”

Berkeley will also take a leadership role in edX, agreeing to chair the “X University Consortium,” a new governing body for the project.

“We really want to expand and add universities,” said Anant Agarwal, who leads the edX project and who is director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “Berkeley is the first one, the first of many.” He would not say how many universities would be added, however, or how soon new members will join.

“You should think of edX as a not-for-profit start-up,” he added. “We are gearing up and trying to ramp up as a start-up as fast as we can go.”

The business plan for edX is similar to that of Coursera, a for-profit start-up that has signed deals with more than a dozen highly selective universities—meaning many key details remain undecided. The only source of revenue planned for edX so far is to charge students who successfully complete the courses a small fee for certificates. But leaders of the effort say they may also offer services to help employers use the courses to recruit new talent.

EdX has won major donations and grant support, however. Officials announced today that an MIT alumnus, Philippe P. Laffont, founder of Coatue Management LLC, and a Harvard alumnus, Jonathan Grayer, former chairman and CEO of Kaplan Inc., have both made gifts to support the effort, though the amounts were not released. Last month the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced a $1-million grant to support the project as well.

Mr. Agarwal stressed that the long-term goal is to make the free courses self-sustaining. “We are talking to several other foundations, but I think you have to become self-sustaining,” he said. “No foundation wants to fund you forever.”

MIT has faced challenges in figuring out how to pay for its pioneering OpenCourseWare effort to give away materials from hundreds of its courses online, a project that is now more than a decade old.

One key difference between the edX project and for-profit companies offering free courses is that edX leaders say the software they build to offer their courses will be open source, so that anyone else can use it free and help develop the code. “The open-source platform will allow all of us to contribute to the platform and not have to worry too much about who owns the intellectual property—it’s going to be shared,” Mr. Agarwal said.

George Siemens, a pioneer of offering free open courses who is a leader of Athabasca University’s Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, sees the open-software aspect of edX as “one of the biggest benefits” of the project. “They’re not just worried about growing their brands, but they’re making something that others can use,” he said.

He said he has been surprised by how rapidly major universities are moving to offer free open courses, often called MOOCs, or massive open online courses. “I can’t recall a time when universities at one moment have responded en masse as aggressively and as collaboratively,” he said.