How would you like to take courses at the best universities around the world for free? Not watered down seminars but the same courses that are taught in top university classrooms. You don’t have to pay a dime in tuition, take admissions tests, submit your grades or teacher recommendations to get into these university classes. You don’t even have to travel to the university. All you have to do is sign up online.
If this sounds too good to be true, you may be thinking that this is fiction or university education of the future. Yet an organization called edX is offering exactly what I just described: free online education from top universities around the world. The courses are the same as those offered to students in the classroom, but for free.
edX is an organization started in May 2012 by Harvard University and MIT to give free access to top level education for people around the globe. In a little more than a year, the program has registered over 1.3 million people and expanded to over 29 universities around the world, including University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown, Wellesley, Cornell, University of Texas. Universities from Australia, China, Japan, India, Europe have joined edX to offer their courses as well.
I recently spoke with Nancy Moss, the Director of Communications for edX about the program. “Harvard and MIT got together and each put $30 million into the venture with the goal of providing access to quality courses to anyone around the world with an Internet connection.”
You can take over 70 different courses from edX, in 23 different subjects, such as science, politics, history, literature, computer science and philosophy. Here are some sample courses offered this fall:
- Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science
- Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance
- The Foundations of Computer Graphics
- Was Alexander Great? The Life, Leadership, and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior
- The History of Chinese Architecture (in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles)
- Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and Developing Countries
You can find a complete list of courses at the edX Course Listing website. Many courses are starting this month, but if you audit a course you can start at any time.
The course description sets out what to expect, how much time is involved, grading and any prerequisites for the course. You can view a video from the professor giving you a preview of the class before you sign up. Here is the video for the Science & Cooking class:
Moss explained that the edX platform is interactive, using games, video, instant feedback and other technologies to help students learn. Student interaction takes place in online forums.
How edX Works
You can either audit the class for free to learn from the class or apply to earn a certificate. To earn the certificate, you must do the assignments and take the tests. Your work will be graded, just like in a real classroom. The number of students who can take a class for a certificate is limited and you must pay a fee for your certificate.
Update from edX about the cost of the certificates:
As of now, edX is only charging for verified certificates in three standalone courses this fall: 6.002x Circuits and Electronics from MITx, and two courses from BerkeleyX: 169.1x Software as a Service and Stat 2.1x Intro to Statistics: Descriptive Statistics. All the other certificates are free. ID verified certificates for the current 3 courses range from $25-100.
Why Universities Participate in edX
You may wonder why universities are giving away for free what university students pay thousands of dollars to attend. According to Moss, the university partners all share three goals that edX was founded on:
- Access to quality education
- Improve the quality of learning on campus
- Research teaching and learning to see how students learn best
The university partners hope that by studying the information gained through edX courses they can understand how students learn best. Based on the findings of edX, universities may incorporate blended classrooms where some lectures may be online videos from visiting professors students can watch independently, with classroom time dedicated to learning in small groups. Students may learn better watching videos in snippets of ten minutes with immediate evaluation of learning after each video.
Moss said that universities are licensing edX courses to use in the classroom so students can take the courses for credit.”For example, a physics professor in a California university may want to use a physics professor from MIT the same way he might use that professor’s textbook.”
Massive open online courses, MOOC‘s, are not new, but “edX is more than just MOOC’s,” said Moss. Educators can understand the environments in which students learn best: what time of day, what is the right blend of online and on campus, what is the right proportion of studying vs. homework. “These courses provide big data and analytics in a format we’ve never had before.”
Producing a Course
I also spoke with Summer Marion, the Lead Course Producer for HarvardX, Harvard University’s contribution to the edX partnership. She works on the course Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy and the Press: An Introduction that is being offered for the first time on edX this fall. Marion took the course as a student and then helped teach the course as a teaching assistant before she started her job in July 2013.
She works with the video and content development team as well as the faculty to create multimedia content for the students. “It’s a very different endeavor to put your lectures on film,” Marion explained. Professors have to become accustomed to speaking into a camera rather than to a classroom of students. “Many of them have been teaching for decades so it’s content that is near and dear to their hearts and they’re very comfortable in the classroom setting.”
To understand the challenges professors were facing in presenting their lectures via video, Summer tried giving a lecture in front of a video camera herself. Although she is comfortable speaking publicly, she confessed to a new nervousness being in front of the camera.
“It helped me to understand better how faculty, who are used to being in front of a classroom, scanning the room, making eye contact with students, picking up on their body language, would be challenged by speaking to a camera instead,” said Marion.
The course Marion is working on has enrolled over 7000 students to audit the class, but the class has a limited enrollment of 500 students who are taking the course for a certificate. The course is taught by Harvard professor Dr. Graham T. Allison, Jr., founder of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, and covers domestic and international challenges to US national security. Students are given case assignments to put them in the role of advising President Obama on matters of security.
Are you excited about the opportunity to take courses from the best universities around the world for free? Which courses interest you the most?