Will Harvard and MIT’s edX Really Help Students?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The news that Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have joined forces to offer free massive online open courses (MOOCs) was announced with fanfare and excitement. The project is a non-profit collaboration separate from MIT’s decade-old OpenCourseWare program, in which more than 100 million people worldwide have participated. Speaking with the press, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith said, “There’s great excitement, on both sides, to have this impact not only what we’re doing on campus but to really change the way education is done across the world.” MIT President Susan Hockfield added, “EdX represents a unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new educational path for millions of learners worldwide.”
However, the jury is out on just how those other than Harvard and MIT students can truly benefit from completing edX courses—especially at a time when many are questioning the validity of any higher education due to the high rates of unemployment among college graduates. Completion of edX courses does not earn academic credit. Instead, students can pay a fee for a “Certificate of Mastery.” Grouping edX with free online universities like Khan Academy, Gregory Huang argued that “These companies and projects hold the promise of providing access to top-tier university classes to millions of people around the world. They also threaten to disrupt the economic pillars of traditional university tuitions and endowments, at least eventually.” But at a time when college education is becoming more and more expensive and jobs harder and harder to come by, should students bother taking courses that do not currently count toward degrees that may help get them jobs?

Does free online ed actually benefit students?

Certainly the lure of free courses will pull many students. Barb Darrow, writing on Gigaom.com, points out that “A certificate from Harvard or MIT might be seen as more valuable than a degree from a for-profit institution like the University of Phoenix. And, given the skyrocketing cost of attending a name-brand college (or even a no-name college for that matter), free options like this may become even more enticing.” Similarly, The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that another form of non-degree education, earning digital learning badges, might be beneficial to students and those seeking employment because “Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned.”
But those opinions seem to be based on speculation rather than data. The Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, released in June 2010, revealed that by 2018, “about two-thirds of all employment will require some college education or better,” resulting in a need for “at least 3 million post-secondary degrees.” And student Dennis Ai, a computer science and economics major at Northwestern University, told USA Today that he used a similar program, Stanford’s Coursera, only to “supplement” a credit-bearing course in Machine Learning at Northwestern.

Who will really benefit from this?

Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, was very clear in her press release on just who is going to benefit, at least in the short term, from the creation of edX:

“It is, however, what will happen on our campuses that will truly distinguish edX. Harvard and MIT are institutions devoted to research and to discovery. Through this partnership, we will not only make knowledge more available, but we will learn more about learning. We will refine proven teaching methods and develop new approaches that take full advantage of established and emerging technology, building on the insight we gain to enhance the educational experiences of students who study in our classrooms and laboratories. Ultimately, we will expand the scope of our efforts, collaborating with other universities to host a wide array of educational offerings on a single site.”

In other words, in its current incarnation, Harvard and MIT will use edX to glean data that will primarily benefit “students who study in our classrooms and laboratories.” This makes Gregory Huang’s fervent hope that such initiatives “threaten to disrupt the economic pillars of traditional university tuitions and endowments, at least eventually” really little more than just a hope at this stage. Neither Harvard, MIT, nor other elite schools such as Stanford,  have figured out how to both expand learning opportunity for millions around the world and turn those opportunities into something that will translate into a degree, which still seems to be the credential most employers want.

Perhaps this is the way it needs to be at first, to test the waters with relatively low-risk and at no cost to students who might otherwise have to pay high tuition price tags. But it does seem that some of the accolades are a little premature. Though gaining an education is always beneficial in some areas, in today’s economy, free education might be a luxury that most students cannot afford in the race to earn the credentials that will help them find a job. Time will tell if and how free online courses—even offered by two of the best universities in the world—will actually benefit most students.

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