Harvard and MIT to offer online courses. A step in lowering college costs?

On Wednesday, Harvard and MIT announced they're forming a new organization called edX to deliver online courses to learners around the world. Each school is investing $30 million.

Bill Greene/The Boston Globe/AP
Harvard President Drew Faust (l.) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield speak during a news conference announcing a new partnership in online education on May 2, in Cambridge, Mass.

Two of America's most prestigious universities are uniting around a seemingly controversial idea: that online education is an opportunity and not a threat for residential colleges.

On Wednesday, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in Cambridge, Mass., announced that they're forming a new organization called edX to deliver online courses to learners around the world. Each school said it will invest $30 million in launching the project.

The idea is that this new investment will complement, rather than compete with, their residential learning programs.

Yet the move comes amid a wave of experimentation and angst in the world of education. The cost of earning a college degree has soared, and the recent job market for graduates has been weak. A range of start-ups is now moving to promote the online model of learning. Some financial experts talk of higher education as a "bubble" that will burst, as new technologies such as online learning allow students to earn credentials at a lower cost.

No one is expecting the physical campuses of elite institutions like Harvard to go the way of the horse-drawn carriage anytime soon. But the Wednesday announcement underscores that top institutions plan to ride technology's wave rather than risk being swamped by it.

“Online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally,” MIT President Susan Hockfield said in announcing the project, according to a Harvard Gazette report. She explained that "you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities for education leaders in our lifetimes."

Among large universities, MIT has been a pioneer in the concept of online learning. Since 2001, it has been posting educational materials from all classes online for free.

What MIT and Harvard plan to do now is to introduce more interactive forms of online learning, such as online discussion groups or labs. The edX project also will allow students to earn credentials, though not official Harvard or MIT course credits.

"For a modest fee – and as determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard – credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject," MIT said in a statement on the project.

MIT and Harvard also say edX is designed as a technology platform that other universities can join over time.

Already, the two schools are far from alone in moving online.

A number of US universities offer full-credit courses over the Internet, for a fee. Other institutions, such as the nonprofit Khan Academy, have shown that free online videos can be a successful form of instruction.

One start-up, the Minerva Project, has raised $25 million in venture funding to create a new elite university with an entirely online model – and tuition rates about half those of traditional Ivy League schools.

Harvard and MIT say their goals with edX are twofold. One is to widen their educational reach beyond their formal degree programs. The second is to gather data on how students learn online, with a view toward using these insights to improve their residential education programs.

They are announcing the move at a time of high financial stress for college students and parents. President Obama recently turned the spotlight on America's high level of student debt and called on colleges to control runaway costs.

College tuition and fees, on average, have been rising by about 7.6 percent a year since 1979, according to inflation data from the US Labor Department. That's a full four percentage points faster than the nation's overall inflation rate during that time.

Still, economists say, gaining education beyond high school still carries a large payoff, in higher earnings during one's career.

"Huge changes are going to come in higher education," magazine publisher Steve Forbes said at an appearance in Boston Wednesday (separate from the edX announcement). He called the rapid tuition hikes of recent decades unsustainable and predicted that cost growth will be checked by changes including more online learning.

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