There's gold in them there hills of online learning

Altruism takes a back seat as US elite consolidate to profit from open courses. Jon Marcus reports

August 23, 2012

Anant Agarwal looked out the window of his new office on the seventh floor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences and mused aloud - and without evident irony - about the future of online education.

"We're going to change the world," said Dr Agarwal, who is heading edX - the MIT-Harvard University collaboration to provide such education. Courses from edX could reach 1 billion people, he said. And, no, he was not trying to compete with other universities that plan to teach online. There was room for everyone, Dr Agarwal said, with a smile.

But Harvard and MIT - two of the US' biggest and most prestigious universities - do appear to be choosing sides in a showdown over which bodies will most quickly and effectively usher in (and make cash from) the online education revolution.

The University of California, Berkeley has just signed on with edX, but rival platform Coursera's original partners - the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Stanford University - have been joined by about a dozen major research institutions, including MIT's arch-rival, the California Institute of Technology.

Harvard's pairing with MIT - which had already set up its MITx platform - in edX's $60 million (£38 million) launch was a major milestone, said Kevin Carey, director of the education policy programme at Washington thinktank the New America Foundation.

"I think it was because they were reading the newspapers and were afraid they were going to be left behind," he said.

Meanwhile, former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, who (with Peter Norvig) helped make online education a phenomenon with his introduction to artificial intelligence class (last year it attracted 160,000 students worldwide), has started a company called Udacity, backed by venture capital.

This consolidation follows years during which the open-courseware and online education movements were low-key, collegial affairs promoted as altruistic means of making higher education free and available to all. Now they are increasingly about figuring out how to make (or at least not lose) money.

"Many of my faculty colleagues and I have been experimenting with online learning, but we hadn't done it in an organised global fashion," Dr Agarwal said. "We let 1,000 flowers bloom in the past couple of decades."

The race is on to be the first to offer, and profit from, a critical mass of "massive open online courses".

Coursera, which has $16 million of venture backing, plans to launch 100 courses this autumn and said it had registered 680,000 students in more than 40 countries. It has also talked of offering certificates of completion for $30 to $80 per credential, per course. Dr Agarwal said edX was talking with private testing companies about providing examinations for a fee for students who want to prove that they have successfully completed its courses.

The market, said Dr Agarwal - himself the product of the Indian Institutes of Technology, a system that admits barely 1 per cent of applicants - is vast.

"There's a huge gap between what's available to feed this thirst for education in the world, and the education we provide," he said.

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