$60 Million Venture To Bring Harvard, MIT Online For The Masses

"I believe we can work with a billion people around the world and change education in a fundamental way as it really hasn’t changed in 1,000 years," Anant Agarwal, who stepped down as head of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab to take the reins of edx, tells Fast Company.

You've seen the Stanford, Berkeley, and MIT versions of mass-elite online learning debut over the past few months. Now Harvard, the Apple of universities, is finally making a major play in the rapidly expanding field.

The new nonprofit venture, dubbed edx, pours a combined $60 million of foundation and endowment capital into the open-source learning platform first developed and announced by MIT earlier this year as MITx.

"I believe we can work with a billion people around the world and change education in a fundamental way as it really hasn’t changed in 1,000 years," Anant Agarwal, who stepped down as head of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab to take the reins of edx, told Fast Company in advance of the announcement. A native of Mangalore, India, he competed against over a million applicants to gain a position at the Indian Institute of Technology, and is excited by the idea of opening up the worlds' best universities to millions of ambitious young people like himself currently in developing countries. 120,000 students in dozens of countries are currently participating in the platform's pilot course, MIT 6.002x, on circuits and electronics (you can enroll here).

Maryum Ahmad is a 19-year-old engineering student at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan, who enrolled in MIT 6.002x with two classmates. "What could have been better than this?" she told Fast Company via Facebook message. "Enrollment in MIT’s Course, the top-notch university in the field of engineering. It was the golden opportunity for me to get the maximum benefit out of it and learn Electronics right to the deep core from the best teachers, and as we are being awarded a certificate at the completion of the course which can boost up my resume, who would give it a second thought?"

Edx's offerings are very different from the long-form lecture videos currently available as "open courseware" from MIT and other universities. Eventually, edx will offer a full slate of courses in all disciplines, created with faculty at MIT and Harvard, using a simple format of short videos and exercises graded largely by computer; students interact on a wiki and message board, as well as on Facebook groups, with peers substituting for TAs. The research arm of the project will continue to develop new tools using machine learning, robotics, and crowdsourcing that allow grading and evaluation of essays, circuit designs, and other types of exercises without endless hours by professors or TAs. Although edx is nonprofit and the courses are free, Agarwal envisions bringing the project to sustainability by one day charging students for official certificates of completion.

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

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