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In the MIT FAQ on the $800 million sale of edX assets to 2U, question No. 15 asks, what is the nonprofit that MIT and Harvard will govern once the transaction is complete?

The answer given in the FAQ is that the yet-to-be-named nonprofit will focus on:

A. Stewarding and enhancing the Open edX platform.

B. Exploring new ways to “make online learning more effective, engaging, and personalized.”

C. Investing in new areas not possible under the previous funding model, such as conducting research on “the potential of artificial intelligence to make online learning more responsive and personalized to the individual learner.”

All that sounds good for the new nonprofit.

We have an additional idea.*

We believe the new nonprofit should look beyond online learning and into areas of learning innovation and the scholarship of institutional change.

Specifically, we’d like to suggest the new nonprofit see the next great research challenges as ones not limited to online learning but rather as ones that address how colleges and universities might evolve to support teaching and learning to address the needs and demands of the university of the future.

This focused effort may include a better understanding of how these activities should align with learning science (as MIT’s VP for Open Learning and edX board member, Sanjay Sarma, argues in his terrific book Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn).

It might also include research (and perhaps challenges to the relative status quo of) the complex interplay between the (virtual) classroom, the larger university context and the federal and regional accreditation practices that maintain rigid standards, often at the expense of innovation and thoughtful change.

This research might do well to jettison the idea of online altogether and focus on teaching and learning in all their modalities, in all their contexts and all their spaces. A shift that we should all recognize, especially after this last year of remote learning, as the future of teaching and learning.

This area of scholarship we are suggesting -- and which we have argued is the foundation of a new academic discipline in learning innovation -- would align well with edX’s history and the stated goals of the new nonprofit. Of the three pillars of the original edX mission, one is to “advance teaching and learning through research.”

To date, that research, such as it is, has primarily focused on individual learners. The extension and amplification to that original “learner-focused” research we are advocating for is bringing universities into the conversation, marking them as significant units of analysis, not as contextual frameworks that provide the stage for learning but as fundamental players in what happens in the (virtual) classroom.

The central questions of this emerging interdisciplinary field are situated at the nexus of the study of how colleges and universities (and the postsecondary ecosystem) change. This work is in part dependent on the science of how people learn, but it also depends on an understanding of complex dynamic systems, the history and critical study of higher education as a field, new and emerging models of what a college can be, and a meaningful engagement with the challenges higher ed faces now and will face in the near future.

This line of inquiry attempts to understand the value and impact of the institutional context and strategies of colleges and universities on the individual learner and on the societies these institutions serve.

These are messy -- sometimes complex and sometimes wicked -- problems. Research and scholarship are needed to unpack the field and to start answering the fundamental questions facing higher ed today.

For a number of reasons, the new nonprofit that will be enabled by the sale of edX is extraordinarily well positioned to prioritize these lines of inquiry.

The story of edX is as much about the consortium of institutions as it is about the courses that have been delivered on the edX platform and the global learners who have participated in these programs. For institutions that created courses and programs on the edX platform, membership in the consortium was always as much about institutional change as it was about open online learning.

At annual edX meetings -- and during more frequent conversations and gatherings of edX university members -- the discussions invariably gravitated toward the shared challenges of organizational change. For edX member institutions, MOOCs were as much a means to an end to advance campus-based learning as they were to create new open online courses.

Many of our institutions were able to leverage the excitement (or hype) around MOOCs to help build new institutional capacities to advance teaching and learning. This infrastructure for learning included investments in new educational developer and instructional designer positions, enhanced capabilities in media education, and a focus on evidence-based approaches through learning analytics to improve learning. Membership in the edX consortium provided both a catalyst and a structure for a wide cross-section of faculty and institutional leadership to consider the future of learning.

In addition to building on the strengths of the established institutional relationships that were developed as part of the edX consortium, the new nonprofit brings other assets to this emerging area of scholarship. Both MIT and Harvard are already internationally renowned for their activities in learning science, education scholarship and research on organizational change. The nonprofit will have the opportunity to weave these threads together, drawing on the strengths of existing schools, centers and scholars within both institutions.

The results of scholarship that examines institutional change through the lens of learning science are apparent in the writings of academic leaders who have long been associated with edX. Among this work is Grasp (mentioned above) and the also terrific The Content Trap: A Strategist's Guide to Digital Change by Bharat Anand (Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning and an edX board member).

Harvard and MIT now have the opportunity to create a new nexus of scholarly inquiry, one that integrates the study of learning and institutional change. Such a focus for the new nonprofit would both continue with, and expand on, the original mission of edX.

By focusing on the structural forces and organizational factors that enable (or hinder) student learning, this new nonprofit can help to continue edX’s original mission to harness the “transformative power of education.”

*Disclaimer: Both of our schools are edX charter members, and according to the FAQ, “The nonprofit’s detailed mission, name, and research program will be developed following consultation with the faculty of both MIT and Harvard, as well as with edX partner institutions.” The ideas in this blog post should not be construed, at this time, as representing the full institutional opinions or goals of our schools.

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