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EdX President Anant Agarwal prepares to speak at the press conference. (Photo by Dominick Reuter)

Harvard University announced today that it is joining MIT in offering free online courses—and that the two institutions will together spend $60 million on a project that will grant certificates of completion to those who finish a Harvard or MIT course online.

The universities will also make their courses available at no cost to other providers, which is likely to continue the growth of organizations that offer free online higher education. They will also use the courses to test new ways of providing online education, including to their own students, which could reduce the demands on faculty time and classroom space.

“This has the potential to be paradigm-shifting,” says Harold Levy, former New York City Schools Chancellor and managing director of Palm Ventures, which invests in education businesses. “It shows tremendous vision, and the potential is there to reinvent a large chunk of higher education.”

The joint project, EdX, will be built on a platform that MIT launched last December called MITx, which provides MIT courses for free online through video lectures, quizzes, instant feedback, online labs and student-paced learning.

“Harvard and MIT will use these new technologies and the research they will make possible to lead the direction of online learning in a way that benefits our students, our peers and people across the nation and the globe,” Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust said.

One group that probably won’t benefit is smaller, less-prestigious colleges and universities, which could lose students to the free education offered by EdX—especially if the promised certificates of completion turn out to be accepted by employers in lieu of traditional academic degrees. Details of the certificates, for which the universities would charge a fee, remain vague.

Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, will serve as EdX’s first president. He said the goal is to educate one billion people around the world, and that the initiative will collect and analyze huge amounts of student data, such as time spent on questions and what information students revisit.

“This is Big Data in its biggest form,” Agarwal told a news conference in Cambridge, Mass. “So all of this data will be available to MIT and Harvard and other collaborators around the world to understand how people really learn so then we can help synthesize a better educational experience.”

MIT has also already teamed up with Khan Academy, a nonprofit created by former Silicon Valley hedge-fund manager Salman Khan, in an initiative called MITx + K12, which provides free online content created by MIT students for middle- and high-school grades.

A Cambridge-based nonprofit will oversee the Harvard-MIT collaboration, which will be owned and governed equally by the two schools. Each has committed $30 million in institutional support, grants and philanthropy.

The universities’ presidents said during the news conference that the creation of EdX was not financially driven, but that there will be efforts to make the project self-supporting so it doesn’t become a drain on the schools’ budgets.

It’s also good marketing. At MIT, half of incoming freshmen report having looked at MIT courses online, and a third say it influenced their decision to go there.

The financial viability of EdX remains to be seen.

“That’s the test: Can they develop a model that makes this sustainable?” Levy asked. “If this becomes just another way for universities to lose money, it would be unfortunate.”

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  1. Nice to know that two of the most prestigious universities in the country are offering this. It’s a great opportunity for students to take advantage of this.

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