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At a joint press conference today, Harvard University President Drew Faust and MIT President Susan Hockfield announced a new nonprofit partnership, edX, that would offer free open online courses. If the “X” sounds familiar when paired with MIT, it’s because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled its plans for MITx late last year, its online learning initiative that would allow anyone with an Internet connection to take an online class from the university and receive a certificate upon successful completion. The first class, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, is currently underway.

With edX, Harvard too is getting into the explosion of massive online open course offerings, and the two prestigious east coast schools’ partnership can certainly be seen as a rival to the startups that have come from the west coast – namely Udacity and Coursera, both of which grew out of Stanford’s experimentations with MOOCs last term.

But the east coast-west coast and/or the elite university rivalries aren’t really the most interesting thing about the edX news.

Nor is it that Harvard says that it will, just as MITx does, offer certification (but no college credits) to those who complete the class.

Nor is the most interesting thing in today’s news that we’re seeing institutions of higher ed, reknowned for the glacial pace of their responsiveness and transformation, move quickly – really really quickly – to embrace MOOCs. Add to the list of MIT, Stanford, and Harvard are other US universities too – the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the University of Michigan, now all offering courses via the Coursera or the MITx platform, as well as open online courses at other universities, including those offered at the University of Mary Washington and the University of Regina.) At the edX announcement today, the university presidents said they expected others to join as well. As the MITx platform will be open source, universities will be able to offer MOOCs on it without having to pay or license the similar software from one of these other new for-profit education startups.

Nor is the most interesting thing that Harvard and MIT have both pitched in $30 million to the initiative. That $60 million total "is likely more than the combined venture funds raised by Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy,” says Inside Higher Ed’s Steve Kolowich. Take that venture capital!

These are all pretty notable features of today’s news, no doubt, which does feel as though it might be worthy of the adjective “game-changer.” As George Siemens, an early MOOC innovator himself, told The New York Times, “if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free Circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a Circuits course.”

But what I find particularly interesting about today’s news is that it’s framed in terms of supporting teaching and learning and in terms of researching what it means to do so in an online (and a massively online) setting, and how that in turn can benefit the offline, on-campus experience. According to the press release, the two universities will use the platform to “research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful. The findings of this research will be used to inform how faculty use technology in their teaching, which will enhance the experience for students on campus and for the millions expected to take advantage of these new online offerings.”

It’s too early to tell what the research component will be in the Coursera platform. When I spoke to founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng late last month, they too stressed the importance of pedagogy and the recognition that the increasing number of online, lecture-oriented classes means that students will have a chance for more hands-on learning experiences on campus.

But certainly missing from Udacity and Coursera so far – based on my experiences as a student at least – has been much effort to capture data about the students who are enrolled (their backgrounds – geography, gender, academic, age and so on) or elicit feedback on what works and what doesn’t work for learners in these settings. As with many open enrollment efforts, there seems to be the expectation that many students will simply drop out and that participation will drop off. If this is indeed “a bold new educational path for millions of learners worldwide” as President Hockfield put it today, then I do think we need to make sure this is a path and not just a platform.

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