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New ticket to Harvard and MIT: An Internet connection

Through edX, the two storied institutions will offer courses online for free and develop an open-source software platform tailored for online learning.

Harvard University

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today launched an initiative to make its education material available online for free.

Through an initiative called edX, the two storied learning institutions will develop an open-source software platform and offer some of their courses online starting this fall. Harvard and MIT will govern the not-for-profit joint venture and dedicate $30 million each in grants and institutional support.

With edX, Harvard and MIT are seeking to learn about online education to enhance how they offer classes online, both to remote students and students on campus, university officials said at a press conference in Boston that was also available via Webcast.

"Online education is disruptive, it will completely change the world," said Anant Agarwal, the director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "Our goal is to educate 1 billion people around the world."

A prototype class in circuits and electronics attracted 120,000 registered students, who will receive a certificate and a grade for completing the classes.

Harvard and MIT hope to offer courses from other universities at edX and that other universities will use its open-source software. MIT content will branded "MITx," the name of MIT's online education program launched last year, and Harvard classes as "Harvardx."

There is growing activity in online learning at universities, nonprofits, and startup companies. MIT launched OpenCourseWare 10 years ago to make its class content online. Over the past few years, the Khan Academy has helped popularize online learning with videos on a wide range of topics. Udacity and Coursera are two companies offering free online instruction, too.

In addition to familiar video lectures from teachers, edX will develop software to enhance learning with tests, personalized coursework, and collaboration tools for students. The software will gather information on how students use the software to gain insight into effective teaching methods, said Agarwal. Officials said the universities will use edX for research to better enhance the residential learning experience on campus.

How the venture will be funded over time is still an open question. The universities are considering different business models, such as charging for certificates.

For its first classes, students will receive a certificate and grade for completing an online class, but not issued under the names of Harvard or MIT. Students already at MIT and Harvard can't take edX classes for credit.

What classes will be offered online is also being determined, officials said. Above all, the launch of edX is a recognition that the Internet is deeply affecting university-level education.

"Today in higher education generally you can choose to view this as an era of threatening change and unsettling volatility or a moment charged with the most exciting opportunities to educators in our lifetimes," said MIT President Susan Hockfield.