Last spring, Harvard and MIT announced a $60 million plan to make scores of their courses available for free online. The partnership, called edX, aims to reach a billion people around the world.
"This is the year of disruption for education," says MIT computer scientist Anant Agarwal, the president of edX. "The time is right because the Internet is available in large parts of the world. Computers and tablets have become relatively low cost. Things are moving extremely, extremely fast."
edX is part of a nationwide movement led by three big players. Udacity and Coursera are free education companies based in California. edX is in Cambridge, Mass. The goal for all three of them is to make education available to people worldwide for free. But Anant Agarwal says that edX also has a mission to improve teaching. He says computer technology can help tailor courses to how 21st century college students work and live.
"We are finding that most students watch video between 12 and 2 at night, but we still make them come to lectures early in the morning," says Agarwal. "But by making available online videos with interaction built in we can make learning available at any place, any time, to anyone."
A video that introduces one of the initial courses now online at edX announces, "This is CS50! Computer Science 50 is Harvard's introduction to computer science and art of programming for majors and non-majors..."
Harvard Provost Allan Garber explains that the edX software can record every keystroke and mouseclick that a student makes. That means education researchers will have a fine-grained view of how learners use online lectures, study guides and quizzes.
"One of the beautiful things about online education is that as we improve the tools for teaching and learning, we also learn more about how our students are using these tools. This is a virtuous cycle," says Garber.
The so-called massively open online course,or MOOC, may change the way students learn not only at Harvard, but also at schools across the United States. As states cut their budgets many public colleges and universities are struggling to teach more students with less money. Schools are looking for ways to cut costs. Terry Moe, a political scientist at the Hoover Intuition at Stanford, says mid-tier colleges ought to tap into the free course-ware from leading universities like Harvard to offer more and better classes to their local students.
"Suppose you have some Pulitzer Prize-wining historian who is a fantastic lecturer on the civil war? Why should they take pot luck and walk into some classroom and get some professor whose not nearly as good as this person. OK it's that kind of thing, but applied across the full range of subjects," says Moe.
Moe says struggling schools could teach classes and more students, but with fewer professors.
"This is just a bigger bang for buck way of providing kids with a quality education," says Moe.
The free classes offered by big-name universities may have another unintended effect on higher education -- cheaper degrees.
"There's going top be the invention of lots of low-cost universities now that take these component parts from Coursera or from an edX and assemble it together in coherent degrees that'll cost $1,000 or $2,000," says Michael Horn, a technology expert at the Innosight Institute, a Silicon Valley think-tank.
Horn says these low-cost, online programs would be a "grave danger" to middle-tier colleges and universities in the U.S -- those schools that are not particularly well-known nor especially affordable.
"Because why would I go to an institution that has very little brand for $15,000 a year when I could go to a low-cost model and be taking the best of the best from MIT, Dartmouth, Harvard, wherever," he says. "That I think is going to challenge things quite a bit in the years to come."
The elite universities experimenting with massively open online courses do not expect their free web-based programs to cut into the current demand for their traditional, on-campus experience. Plenty of students will still want to live in dorms and meet their professors in classrooms. But when the cost of college can run more than $60,000 a year at the most selective schools, a free virtual classroom starts to look pretty good.