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MIT and Harvard presidents Susan J. Hockfield and Drew Faust announce edX during Wednesday’s press conference. “We come together with conviction to say that online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally,” Hockfield said.
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The world has come to expect great things when the university titans of Cambridge join forces. After all, Harvard and MIT led the international team that cracked the human genome together in 2003.

But now they’re going after something wholly different — bringing university education online and making it freely available to the world.

Harvard and MIT announced on Wednesday a major new partnership in the sphere of online learning, called “edX.” The effort is an extension of MIT’s own MITx initiative — announced last December — which is currently piloting an online circuits and electronics course to 120,000 students.

Harvard and MIT hope edX will enhance on-campus education at both institutions while bringing a Harvard/MIT education to anybody with an Internet connection. Both schools have pledged $30 million in startup funding for edX.

The move cements online education as a top institutional priority for MIT from now on.

“What we will discover together will help us do what we do better — to more effectively, more creatively, increase the vitality of our campuses — and at the same time increase educational opportunities for learners and teachers across the planet,” said MIT President Susan J. Hockfield at a press conference on Wednesday.

MITx will become a part of edX, but MIT courses will still retain the MITx branding. Similarly, Harvard courses will be part of “Harvardx.” EdX is being billed as an open platform that other universities can join to offer their own courses. Students who complete courses via edX can earn certificates of completion for a “modest” fee, according to edX officials. Those who don’t want to pay can access course material for free, but will not earn a certificate.

Hockfield and Harvard President Drew G. Faust were accompanied at Wednesday’s event by key backers of MITx, and now edX. Anant Agarwal, who announced in March he would step down from his role as CSAIL head to run MITx full-time, will become edX’s first president. Provost L. Rafael Reif, who has been at the forefront of MITx, was present with his Harvard counterpart, Alan M. Garber.

The announcement was met with fanfare by the administrations of both schools and by many in the national press. But the creation of edX underscores big and as-yet unanswered questions about the nature of online education, many of which have been raised by students and faculty here since the December MITx announcement.

How, for example, will the edX platform be used to enhance on-campus learning at Harvard and MIT? How will “soft” questions, like free-responses and essays, be graded automatically and online? And how will university officials know whether edX is actually working to enhance a residential education? Is this the future of higher education?

EdX backers acknowledge that these are important questions, but say that at these early stages many are hard to answer.

In a conference call with the press, Agarwal said that edX is both an educational and research initiative. Experimenting with how students interact with online learning technology, he says, will help both institutions make their online and residential learning experiences better.

He suggested, for example, that edX may try “crowdsourcing or machine-learning technology” to grade free-responses and essays online.

The issue of how, exactly, online learning will complement a residential education at MIT has already received significant attention from faculty members here. The January/February faculty newsletter was devoted in large part to MITx, with some faculty saying more attention should be paid to the model for an on-campus education in the age of MITx.

“There has certainly been focus on what technology-enhanced delivery of courses might look like, but not so much on the long-term impact on our residential students. But the long-range projection that distance learning may ultimately jeopardize the viability of our current residential education experience has received insufficient attention,” wrote Chair of the Faculty Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75.

Agarwal says that a pilot group of MIT students taking 6.002x — the MITx pilot course — has already shed light on how the on-campus educational experience will change in the coming years. Students could do short video tutorials on their own time to learn the textbook-type knowledge that is traditionally conveyed in big lecture halls, he said. Then, they would come to class for one-on-one work with professors and TAs in a laboratory setting.

“I’d like to work with smaller groups of students,” said Allen in a January interview about MITx. “My favorite kind of interactions are office-hour type interactions, where a group is sitting around a table discussing course material in a highly interactive way.”

How Harvard and MIT will assess the success of edX at improving residential education is also not clear, but Garber says faculty at both schools will be actively engaged in answering that question.

“We have assembled groups of faculty to measure how well we’re doing,” he said, adding that the process would take years.

The space of Internet-based online education is populating quickly. Piggybacking on its success offering online computer science courses last year, Stanford University has joined with Princeton University, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania to offer online courses through Coursera, a company founded by two Stanford professors. Udacity, also founded by a Stanford professor, has a similar mission.

EdX distinguishes itself from these West-coast efforts by tying itself to the educational missions of both institutions and by stressing its not-for-profit model. (Reif has said in the past that MITx is expected to be profitable, but that “the driver is not money.”)

EdX expects to offer its first slate of courses this fall.