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On July 24, University of California, Berkeley joined edX — the online education venture started by MIT and Harvard University — and will offer online classes in the fall. MIT has billed edX as an open platform that universities can use to improve their on-campus education and simultaneously make courses available to worldwide audiences. There are seven classes set to be offered for fall 2012, including BerkeleyX courses “Software as a Service” and “Artificial Intelligence.”

Berkeley professor Dan Klein will be one of the instructors for “Artificial Intelligence.” In the seven years that he has been teaching at Berkeley, the class has grown to over 300 students. This increase has forced him to automate parts of the curriculum, such as implementing automatic feedback and online collaboration for projects. Despite this development, he understands that there are both strengths and weaknesses in bringing material to the Internet.

“Lectures online do trade the immediacy of live lecture for the careful crafting that comes from packaging and editing, so it’s a lot like how movies compare to live theater: each medium has its strengths. Another aspect of that comparison that’s worth making is that if you just film live theater, you get the worst of both worlds — it’s neither immediate nor edited — so online lectures do require a very different skill set to do well,” wrote Klein in an email to The Tech.

Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau of Berkeley — also former Dean of Science at MIT — said that many people at the institution, from senior leadership members to faculty, have been thinking about internet education for the last couple of years. Stanford President John Hennessy, a good friend of Birgeneau, approached him about a year ago to discuss the possibility of joining Coursera. When the for-profit company was launched, “both MIT and Berkeley … considered Coursera but for a variety of reasons we decided, separately, that it didn’t meet our needs,” Birgeneau said. He did not wish to discuss those reasons. However, Berkeley does have individual faculty members who are connected with Coursera, and Birgeneau emphasized that senior leadership does not force preferences or opinions on faculty.

MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson has a similar view.

“I prefer not to make specific comparisons to other online offerings, other than to note that it was very important to MIT that at least one option was a not-for-profit one. There will be many different experiments in this space, as different institutions explore options for effective online learning,” Grimson wrote in an email to The Tech.

Birgeneau and MIT L. President Rafael Reif, long-time friends, had been in touch as MIT was developing MITx, the new online educational system that evolved into edX. But the formal arrangements for UC Berkeley to join edX were made just a few weeks ago.

“When Rafael [Reif] announced MITx and the edX partnership with Harvard, we looked at their mission statement and we got very excited about edX,” Birgeneau said. “I called up Rafael and ended up having a conversation with him about Berkeley joining them, since their vision for online education was consonant with ours.”

Financial contributions to edX

As the founding universities of edX, MIT and Harvard both contributed $30 million toward the project. At this time, Berkeley will not be matching this contribution, but will lead the to-be-formed “X Universities” consortium.

“It’s just not financially possible for us at this time in history,” said Birgeneau. “We are providing technical expertise — we have faculty at Berkeley who are top in computer science, and we think we can really make a contribution on the technical side for the platform.” Birgeneau also said that as a large public university on the West coast, they will help draw people from around the country to the edX platform, and in particular draw people from the large number of community colleges in California.

Exploring teaching technology

Both MIT and Berkeley leaders have said that the development of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will not only help spread education globally, but will also enhance on-campus education at universities.

“We plan to explore a range of experiments in using online technology to enhance our residential-based experiences; from flipped classrooms,” — where students are instructed by online videos outside of class, and teachers guide interactive activities in class — “to online immediate student assessment and feedback, to online discussion groups, to other experiments,” Grimson said. “The results will guide future development of subjects.”

Klein affirmed that tools used in online courses, such as autograders, have and will continue to improve feedback and learning. He also believes that online discussion forums “allow great conversations to flourish about course material — conversations that used to be confined to office hours.”

Birgeneau added that “one way that Berkeley complements MIT is that we have a strong humanities program — we have more people in humanities at Berkeley than in physical sciences. One of the really interesting things will be to figure out how to offer humanities, like a course in Shakespeare, online. The focus of edX so far has been dominated by computer scientists. We want it to become much richer and much broader.”

Courses offered in the fall also include options like 6.002x Circuits and Electronics (MITx) and PH207x Health in Numbers (HarvardX). 6.002x was pilot course launched by MITx in December 2011, with over 150,000 people registered worldwide. Those interested in learning more about edX or signing up for a course can visit the website online at https://www.edx.org/.