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EdX and Google to develop open-source MOOC platform

Open-Source MOOCs
September 11, 2013

EdX, the online course provider created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, sees an open-source future for massive online courses. On Tuesday, the company announced it has found a like-minded partner in Google, which will work with edX to make its online course platform more accessible to aspiring developers.

Together, edX and Google’s programmers will build Open edX, an open-source MOOC platform that will be made available on MOOC.org. The website, which will launch early next year, will enable anyone -- universities, corporations and individuals alike -- to create online courses.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Anant Agarwal, president of edX and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the new platform and website could be described as a method to crowdsource education.

“Until now, we had opened one end of the spigot, so to speak,” Agarwal said, referring to the online courses created in cooperation with edX’s partner institutions. “All of us are learners and all of us are teachers. I think this is a way to enable anybody to experiment with courses.”

EdX made a part of its source code, known as XBlock, available to programmers earlier this year, then released all its code in June.

Google and edX present an unlikely pairing among the larger players in the MOOC provider space. Both Coursera and Udacity, companies often discussed alongside edX, were founded by faculty members at Stanford University, a 15-minute drive from the Google’s Mountain View, Ca., headquarters. Udacity was even co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, the man behind Google’s experimental arm, Google X.

Google’s executives declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokeswoman for Google said in an e-mail the company does not discuss specific business decisions, and that it considers Thrun’s work with Udacity separate from his responsibilities with Google.

Google is not going all-in with edX, however. Udacity on Monday announced the creation of an Open Education Alliance, listing Google along with technology companies such as AT&T, Intuit and NVIDIA. Google and Udacity will create a course on mobile development, a spokeswoman confirmed.

Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s co-founders, said in a statement that the company’s decision not to open its code to developers is an attempt to ensure quality for its students. “Rather than building Coursera as open-source, which could lead to fragmentation of the development effort, we are committed to building and maintaining a single, robust platform that supports a rich ecosystem of applications via a set of well-defined APIs,” Koller wrote.

Google’s choice of business partner has more to do with a shared plan for online education than connections and locations. When Google in 2012 launched its Course Builder, described as the company’s “experimental first step in the world of online education,” senior officials confirmed they were in conversations with edX about the development of its open-source platform.

Agarwal confirmed Tuesday’s announcement is the end result of those talks.

“Open source was definitely one aspect of it,” Agarwal said. “We both share the mission of building a joint, leading platform for education, and we have assembled a great set of leading institutions around the world helping improve the platform.”

EdX often plugs its nonprofit status to distinguish itself from Coursera and Udacity, both of which are commercial companies. A partnership with Google, whose revenues topped $50 billion in 2012, does not impact that status, Agarwal said.

“[F]undamentally, edX as a company, we are a nonprofit, and we want to improve quality education around the world,” Agarwal said. “That doesn’t change.”

Google’s approach to online courses resembles how colleges and universities have explored the medium. While some institutions brand themselves as exclusive partners with a single MOOC provider, others, like the University of Toronto, have kept their options open. The university has developed courses through Coursera and edX, all in the name of experimentation, said Cheryl Regehr, vice provost of academic programs.

“This is an uncharted world,” Regehr said. “It wasn't clear exactly how these platforms might differ.”

Regehr said some faculty members at Toronto prefer edX’s open-source nature, since it allows them to contribute their personal touch to the code. While Regehr said Open edX may increase access to MOOCs, she added that it is too early to tell.

“The public clearly wants to have access to information,” Regehr said. “The Internet allows for that, and if another open-source platform allows more groups to bring that information and education to the world, that’s great.”

Course Builder’s fate remains undecided. It will continue to operate and support its existing courses, but they may be exported to Open edX in the future, the Google spokeswoman said. Any future courses are likely to be built on Open edX.

 

 

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