America’s oldest college will make a leap into cyberspace Monday as Harvard University will begin offering its first free online courses through a joint venture called edX that the school established with MIT in the spring.
According to the university a total of about 100,000 students have already signed up for the first two Harvard courses, an introduction to computer science and another online course adapted from materials from the Harvard School of Public Health’s courses in epidemiology and biostatics.
Harvard University Provost Alan Garber said Friday that the courses are being offered for free in effort to teach the world by making education materials and Harvard courses available online, as well as improving education on its own campus and researching how people learn and how the university teaches.
“We really think that the first courses we offer will be great, but long term the payoff is going to come from a better understanding about how people learn,” said Garber.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology established edX, a non-profit organization, in the spring, and the University of California, Berkeley joined over the summer.
Anant Agarwal, president of edX, said 155,000 students registered for a circuits and electronics course held in the spring by MIT through edX.
Courses offered through edX are branded MITx, HarvardX and BerkeleyX for their respective universities, and Agarwal said interest has been equally high for the courses offered by all three schools.
Students taking the online courses come from around the world, but Agarwal said that in the spring most of the students were from the United States, India, the United Kingdom and Columbia.
Agarwal said one of the primary motivations for offering the courses for free online is to increase access to learning worldwide. But another goal is that the content and technology developed for the online courses can also be used on the Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley campuses.
Students can take as many courses as they wish through edX, and when they demonstrate mastery of a course they can receive a certificate of completion.
Despite the large number of students who have been registering for the courses, Agarwal said edX can support a variety of ways to grade student work, including programming assignments, multiple choice questions and chemical equations, and he said more and more new ways of grading are being added.
Garber, who is also a co-chair of the board for edX, said other grading solutions for the online courses will be needed when the schools begin to offer courses that will ask students to submit essays. He said innovations to the edX platform will enable the university to support more courses over the next year.
But Garber said edX already supports discussion groups and forums that make online education effective and more engaging than textbooks.
Offering the online courses through edX is also stimulating conversations among the university’s faculty and forced them to re-examine how they teach and what their goals are, Garber said. The students are also having to think about what they need to get out of the courses, he said.
“We view this as an incredible opportunity for us to ask deeper questions about how people learn and how we as a university help people to learn,” Garber said.