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The venture illustrates both the limits and limitlessness of online higher education.
On the one hand, the collaboration looks like an unprecedented gesture of intellectual largesse — an “altruistic giveaway,” as Mary Carmichael put it in the Boston Globe. Or, as Harvard President Drew Faust noted in Wednesday’s news conference, “Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can have access.” The Chronicle of Higher Education termed it part of an “online education revival,” following the collapse of earlier efforts that proved financially untenable.
It remains to be seen how many citizens of edX’s vast global education community can walk away with credentials for completing a course, or what it might cost.
The venture will create access, starting this fall, for literally hundreds of thousands of potential students to some of the greatest minds in academia. There will be no admission gateway — and that’s a significant point, considering how hard it is to get into either Harvard or MIT. (The new undertaking is actually an outgrowth of MITx, a free-to-the-masses online education initiative announced by MIT separately last year.)
But no one taking edX courses will gain access to a credential issued in the name of Harvard or MIT, and that, too, is significant; the online platform will not allow students back-door access to those prized brands. Online learners “who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion,” the universities said in a statement, “but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.”
Such credentials would also cost something — the exact sum is yet to be determined. And it’s not clear that every student who wants a certificate from edX will be able to get one.
Herein lies one of the key limitations of online higher education: when it comes to grading papers or tests, and to assessing whether a student has mastered a course, human graders typically must be involved, and suddenly, the universe of students who can be served shrinks to a finite and very modest number.
University leaders say they will leverage the venture to spawn research on how students learn, and on how best to educate people online. These two schools and other national universities that have dabbled in online education tend to be picky about the online platforms they choose, and to differentiate — fairly or not — between the quality of their online coursework and everyone else’s.