New Institutions Join edX

December 10, 2012

Back in May, I wrote about the new edX partnership, formed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide a platform for Internet-based course offerings.  At the time, Harvard and MIT expressed the hope that other institutions would choose to participate and offer courses at edX, too.

Today, an article in The Washington Post reports that Georgetown University, here in Washington DC, is the latest to join the effort.  The University of California, Berkeley, joined earlier this year, and has some course offerings already; the University of Texas and Wellesley College have joined more recently.   The newer members plan to offer courses by next year.

As I mentioned in that earlier post, there is an experimental component to the edX venture.  One of the objectives of the participating institutions.  The site’s software includes a large assortment of analytical tools for measuring the effectiveness of different presentation tools and instructional methods, based on students’ interaction with the system.  (Think about how much Google, or Facebook, learns about you.)  The institutions hope this will help them make their offerings better.

As the Post article points out, these are still early days in the development of so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  At present, the offerings of the non-profit edX project and its for-profit competitor, Coursera, are free of charge, but also free of credit toward a degree.  I don’t think anyone has a clear idea of what the long-term economic model for these offerings should be.  Institutions like Harvard and MIT obviously charge substantial sums for their conventional, on-campus course offerings (though those, of course, do count for a degree).  It’s not at all clear, at present, how that will all be sorted out.

Nonetheless, I can’t regard these developments as anything but positive.  Although education is not the panacea that politicians’ speeches suggest, it is a powerful force for progress, and these efforts make educational opportunities available to many people around the world who would never otherwise have a chance to get them.

MIT, Harvard Announce edX

May 2, 2012

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT] announced today the formation of a new partnership to provide online learning via the Internet.  The new edX, which has been set up as a not-for-profit entity equally owned and funded by the two universities, will offer Harvard and MIT courses for free.   The partners hope to create a global community of on-line students; they also hope to use the service as a way to understand and improve on-line learning.

The edX platform will build on the MITx technology developed by MIT to deliver its course material online, using a variety of methods.

EdX is based on MITx, a technological platform from MIT designed to offer online versions of their courses. These versions include: video lessons, embedded testing, real-time feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, collaborative web-based laboratories, and student paced learning.

The collaboration between MIT and Harvard is in some sense natural, since they are neighbors† in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  They hope that other institutions will join the initiative and provide their own educational materials.  The software for the edX platform will be released as open source, so that other institutions can host their own sites if they wish, and will be able to contribute to the development of the platform.  For students, there is an obvious benefit to being able to access courses from many different places with a single set of tools.  A single platform will also improve the value of edX as a tool to learn about learning.

MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful.

A first set of courses is to be announced this summer, with the first sessions scheduled to begin this fall.

† As is often the case with neighbors, there is a certain friendly rivalry that exists.  I can’t resist relating this (possibly) apocryphal story:

It’s evening in a Cambridge MA supermarket.  A customer approaches the checkout stand with a heavily laden cart; over the stand is a sign: “12 Items or Fewer”.  When the customer reaches the cashier, she perceives that he is an undergraduate.  She gives him a certain look, sighs, and says, “Well, either you’re from Harvard, and you can’t count; or you’re from MIT, and you can’t read.”

Harvard Library’s Faculty Advisers Push for Open Access

April 24, 2012

The movement toward providing open access to scholarly research seems to be continuing.  I’ve noted before the decisions by a number of different organization, including Princeton University, the Royal Society, the JStor research archive, and, most recently, the World Bank, to provide open access to some or all of their research publications.   According to an article at Ars Technica, a faculty advisory council to the Harvard University Library has just issued a memorandum urging all faculty members to move to open access publication as much as possible, because of what it terms “untenable” and “unsustainable” trends in the pricing of traditional academic journals.

… the Faculty Advisory Council is fed up with rising costs, forced bundling of low- and high-profile journals, and subscriptions that run into the tens of thousands of dollars. So, it’s suggesting that the rest of the Harvard faculty focus on open access publishing.

The library’s current budget for journal subscriptions runs to about $3.75 million.  Admittedly, this is not a large sum compared to the size of Harvard’s endowment, roughly $32 billion; but it is clear from the language of the memorandum that the members of the council have had enough of continually increasing prices that, in their view, have little economic justification.  Some of their complaints, such as the “bundling” of journal subscriptions, will sound familiar to readers familiar with the boycott of Reed Elsevier journals, organized via the Web site,  (Incidentally, when I first wrote about the boycott back in January, there were 1,335 researchers who had signed up to participate; the current total is 10,200.)  They feel that the increasing consumption of library resources for these expensive journals will compromise other parts of their mission.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership,  reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.

They urge faculty members to submit research to open access journals, or at least those with reasonable access policies; to try to raise the prestige of open access publication; and to consider resigning from the editorial boards of journals with unreasonable subscription policies.

The recommendations are not binding on the faculty, but I hope that they will realize, along with academics elsewhere, that they do have the power to effect considerable change.  After all, they supply the “raw material”, in the form of their papers, that the journals need to exist, and they also supply most of the editorial work, usually for no compensation.  For too long, some of these journal publishers have not only bitten the hand that feeds them, but charged the rest of the body for the privilege.

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