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After a whirlwind nine months that has witnessed a rapid rebirth of online education at elite U.S. universities in the form of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, Harvard University threw its hat into the ring Wednesday -- along with the largest investment yet in technology aimed at bringing interactive online education to hundreds of thousands of students at a time, free.

Harvard will be piggybacking on MITx, the platform the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed for its own MOOCs, the universities jointly announced. The combined venture will be a nonprofit called edX. Harvard and MIT together have committed $60 million to the project, which is likely more than the combined venture funds raised by Coursera, Udacity and Khan Academy.

Like the open courses being developed by MIT, Harvard’s open, online courses will be taught by the same professors who preside over the classroom versions. The courses will have to go through an approval process at each campus to make sure they measure up to standards of rigor and usability. “Certificates of mastery will be available for those motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material,” the universities said in a release.

The "prototype" course for the edX project, an MIT-produced course called Circuits & Electronics, has drawn 120,000 registrants. There is no word on what Harvard and MIT courses are next in line for MOOC adaptation, but university officials indicated that the edX offerings will include courses in humanities, social science and natural science.

The EdX platform will be open source, “so it can be used by other universities and organizations who wish to host the platform themselves,” according to the release. While EdX will initially play host to adapted versions of courses from MIT and Harvard, the institutions expect it to become a clearinghouse for open courses offered by various institutions.

“MIT and Harvard expect that over time other universities will join them in offering courses on the edX platform,” the universities said. “The gathering of many universities’ educational content together on one site will enable learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university from a single website, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities.”

Harvard is hardly the first top university of late to announce a foray into large-scale open teaching. Stanford and MIT made their online moves last year; and Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of California at Berkeley are preparing to open their first MOOCs with help from Coursera, a venture-backed company started by two Stanford engineering professors.

The string of announcements represents an online education renaissance among top-tier U.S. universities -- who, after several failed attempts to build online outlets in the early aughts, had watched the online education boom from a distance over the last decade as for-profit colleges and less competitive public and private institutions, many looking to boost revenue, drove Web-based programs into the mainstream.

Business venture vs. research project

Harvard and MIT say one of their main goals with edX is to generate learning data that the universities  can share freely with education researchers. The MITx platform, which will serve as the technology platform for edX, “already has a lot of mechanisms for understanding how students are learning," said Anant Agarwal, a computer science and engineering professor at MIT and the first president of edX. "These data will be available to researchers at MIT and Harvard and other universities around the world,” he said.

The combination of the data-rich online medium and the scale edX hopes to achieve will "enable [education researchers] to ask very different questions than we’ve been able to ask before," said Alan Garber, the provost at Harvard. By crunching granular data on the activity of students in the edX environment, educators will be able to get a sense not only of how well they perform on high-stakes tests but also “how well they acquire and apply the information months after a class has ended,” Garber said.

In a subtle swipe at the proprietary companies (like Coursera and Udacity) that have also built platforms through which top-tier universities can run MOOCs, L. Rafael Reif, the MIT provost, suggested that the ethic of transparency and public-mindedness Harvard and MIT bring to the table will make edX a more generous and responsible curator of the learning data that MOOC platforms will accumulate.

“We feel very strongly that that data should be available for research under the governance of a not-for-profit structure,” Reif said.

In an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, the co-founders of Coursera, called the nonprofit vs. for-profit argument "a red herring and a non-issue."

Coursera, which has raised $16 million from outside investors, recently announced that it will be staging MOOCs on behalf of several of Harvard and MIT's peers, including Princeton, Stanford and Penn. Of all the recent entrants to the business of MOOC hosting, Coursera seems most likely to compete directly with edX. (Udacity and Udemy work with individual instructors, not institutions; and Khan Academy does not work directly with either.)

Koller and Ng emphasized that despite its status as a for-profit company, Coursera was founded on educational principles that its two professorial founders carried over from their academic posts at Stanford.

"All ... courses on the Coursera platform are free to students worldwide," Ng wrote. "Our partnerships with universities are non-exclusive and have no time commitment. Universities and their instructors retain the IP on the content they produce. Our partners have all chosen Coursera because they believe it provides students with the best learning experience."

The Coursera co-founder added that his company also plans to work "with university academics" to "analyze student data to obtain a better understanding of online pedagogy and student learning... and understand human learning at a scale and depth that has been never been possible before."

In a phone call with reporters following Wednesday's news conference, Agarwal, the edX president, said there is plenty of demand for high-quality, free, interactive online courses. "The more of these there are, the better," he said.  

However, officials at MIT and Harvard said that eventually edX will have to figure out a way to be self-sustaining, and it does not have a business plan -- another aspect it shares with Coursera.

“We do intend to find a way to at least support those activities,” said Reif. “Clearly, we want to make sure that this does not become a drain on the budgets of Harvard and MIT.”

Preempting Campus Anxiety

The recent, aggressive movement of the name-brand institutions into free, massive versions of their vaunted courses has kindled discussions about the future of face-to-face education as the free, online options become more sophisticated and creditable.

Harvard and MIT reiterated in Wednesday’s press conference that their objective is primarily to improve the value proposition for tuition-paying students rather than undermine it.

“MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online,” the universities said in a release. “The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful.”

In what has quickly become one of the strongest undercurrents of the messaging from these and other top institutions, the presidents of both colleges took care to underscore their commitment to the on-campus student experience during a news conference.

The universities' vaunted courses via the Web will in some ways open the gates to learning opportunities that historically have been the exclusive privilege of tuition-paying students, said Drew Faust, the Harvard president. "It is, however, what will happen on our campuses that will truly distinguish edX," she said.

“We will learn more about learning," said Faust. "We will refine proven teaching methods and develop new approaches that take full advantage of established and emerging technologies” in order to improve teaching on the residential campus. 

"Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but instead a powerful and inspiring ally,” said Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT.

“What we will discover together," Hockfield said, "will help us do what we do better.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

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