Stanford University, the epicenter of the modern massive open online course movement, said this week that it will develop online learning software with the only one of the three MOOC providers not founded by a Stanford faculty member.
Instead, Stanford is teaming up with edX , the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. Stanford and edX plan to work together to develop edX’s software platform, which will soon be freely available to developers across the world. (A key part of its software is already  freely available.)
The head of edX, the MIT professor Anant Agarwal, said the resulting open source software will allow a “planet-scale democratization of education” – a bold claim amid an ed tech boom full of bold claims.
“This is a great endorsement of the open source, nonprofit approach for MOOCs,” Agarwal said, a remark that invites comparison to for-profit companies in the same industry, though even his nonprofit will have to find a way to make money.
Stanford's vice provost for online education, John Mitchell, said his university would continue to make courses available through Coursera, which was started by two Stanford faculty members. But Stanford will also be creating its own Stanford-based approach using software jointly developed with edX. Stanford courses will not appear on edX’s site but instead appear on a Stanford-branded, Stanford-hosted site.
Mitchell said the university’s “initial interest” in the edX software is so Stanford can offer material to current students on its campus or to students who take Stanford classes for credit online. (In the ed tech alphabet soup, Stanford would be offering not MOOCs but what Agarwal called “SPOCs ,” or Small Private Online Courses.)
Right now, Stanford’s professors are using a variety of software offered by a variety of companies – including Coursera – to distribute content to the general public.
Coursera has agreements with 62 universities that offer their content through Coursera’s website and using Coursera’s proprietary software. EdX has similar agreements with a dozen universities.
Stanford’s relationship with Udacity and Coursera is unique. Some pundits have mistakenly portrayed Stanford as a MOOC proprietor when in fact the courses were made popular by freelancing Stanford faculty members, including the Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun and the two founders of Coursera, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng.
Stanford had been working on open source online learning software of its own, known as Class2Go, since last fall . But Mitchell said Stanford developers had been in contact with the edX team for a “number of months” and this week’s announcement just means the two tracks will publicly merge, so edX and Stanford can pool their work to improve online education.
Mitchell compared the Stanford/edX effort to the evolution of Webkit , an Internet browser software package developed by Apple to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Apple used Webkit to create  the Safari browser – which comes installed on every Mac, iPad and iPhone – but kept the underlying Webkit software open source . Google eventually used Webkit  to create its own browser, Chrome.
So that leaves the question, if edX is Apple and Stanford is Google, who is their Microsoft?
Asked that question during a conference call, Agarwal laughed. Mitchell immediately praised the "great arrangement" Stanford has with Coursera.
He also said Stanford, which has a unique startup-based culture , has no aversion to for-profit companies. But, he said, Stanford does want to leave its options open.
“There are certainly some choices if we have access to the code and the ability to modify it if we like, and also the ability to brand our site as we like, to partner with other organizations as we like,” he said.
Mitchell said Stanford faculty members will continue to post material on Apple’s iTunes U, on Google’s YouTube and on Coursera, and to also generally allow faculty to pick among different platforms.
“We will work on a case-by-case basis with individual faculty,” Mitchell said.
And, even though it is nonprofit, edX will also eventually need to make money. MIT and Harvard both chipped in $30 million apiece to get edX off the ground.
While other open education resources, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, are perpetually profitless and donor-backed, there may be little appetite to do that again. For instance, MIT faculty and trustees are “convinced that they cannot go down the same path again,” according to a new book about MOOCs by William Bowen , the former president of Princeton University.
Agarwal said edX may eventually find a way to license its software.
“I expect that we ourselves or other partners will offer the edX platform in a software-as-a-service model,” he said. In other words, universities would pay if they or their faculty wanted to use edX’s software.
Even though edX’s code will be freely available, some universities may want to spare themselves the hassle or expense of wading through the code to launch courses of their own. A simple example on the consumer side is WordPress, the popular blogging software. The software is free and available to the public, but companies offer paying customers easy installation and customization.
Koller, one of the co-founders of Coursera, questioned whether edX’s commitment to making its software available free will mean much in the grand scheme of things. In a recent interview, she said it would be "very difficult for an institution to take a bunch of code and run it."
Agarwal said just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the usability of edX’s code will depend on the competency of the university trying to use it.
Stanford is making efforts to maintain control of its brand, which has sometimes been appropriated by pundits to describe Coursera or Udacity. While it currently offers seven courses on Coursera, with at least three more planned, Stanford has set up its own online portal of sorts . Besides Coursera, it also offers classes through Venture Lab, which Mitchell described as a Stanford spinoff.
While edX may have planet-scale ambitions, it appears unlikely that a single online software will come to dominate the field of line learning -- or even the subfield of MOOCs.
Mitchell said the market will likely bear a number of for-profits in coming years.
Bowen, for his part, once advocated for a single software platform to be used across higher ed, but recently came to see that approach as both unrealistic and unwise.
He also warned that nonprofits are not immune from the temptation to privatize or control data, one of his fears.
“There are too many examples, in publishing and in other fields, of situations in which nonprofits act very much like their for-profit cousins,” Bowen wrote in his book, which was based on lectures he gave last year at Stanford.