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Anyone can go to Harvard; Ivys offer free online classes

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Let’s do some math.

Suppose you were a member of the incoming freshmen class. Even if you received Seattle U’s largest widely available scholarship, you would still end up paying more than $72,000 for tuition over the next four years — assuming tuition costs don’t rise, which they probably will. That cost doesn’t include a room, a meal plan or any number of the other fees that new students are required to pay.

What if you could receive a world-class education for nothing more than the cost of Internet access?

It turns out Harvard and MIT are working on that with their upcoming partnership, EdX, which, according to its website, “will collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.”

EdX will offer its first five courses this fall. EdX’s developers hope that eventually other universities will offer courses using the EdX platform. Given that EdX enrollment could easily be in the thousands, individualized attention would be unrealistic. Computer grading will be used for objective assignments, and a combination of peer editing, crowd-sourcing, and natural-language software will be used to grade essays.

According to The New York Times, Harvard and MIT are only two of several universities offering massively open online courses, or MOOCs. This model of online education has been explored in the past to varying degrees of success. The New York Times cited Columbia University’s Fathom in 2001 as well as Yale, Princeton and Stanford’s AllLearn in 2006. Both eventually failed.

EdX has arguably made the biggest splash of any online education platform in the past few years. The classes will not count for college credit and cannot go towards a degree from either school. All students receive is a grade and a certificate of completion. Associate professor Bob Hughes, who specializes in adult and online education and is a Harvard graduate, doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“Would I choose Harvard if I’m going to pay all this money to go to their campus and do all this work and know that somebody else is getting it for free? It would diminish the value of my degree if they did that,” said Hughes.

Online education is still not considered to be on-par with traditional education. A Cleveland University study that surveyed 109 employers found that almost all would prefer to hire a traditionally educated job candidate over one that had received an online education. In addition, 72 percent said that the type of degree matters when choosing which candidate to select.

However, many still consider the implications of EdX to be powerful. If it succeeds, it could change public perception of online education. “What this allows them to do is to create an incredible high profile for online education,” Hughes said. The discrepancy in prestige could lessen, which would make a valuable education accessible to a larger and more diverse population.

“If I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course,” said MOOC pioneer George Siemens to The New York Times.

Both Washington State University and the University of Washington have developed extensive online programs, though neither provide free classes.

Currently, Seattle University’s online education opportunities are extremely limited, though not nonexistent. Hughes thinks the program presents an opportunity to Seattle U and other colleges to have a productive dialogue about effective models of online education.

“Should we be doing something similar? What should we be offering online, and what should it look like?” Hughes said. “We need to be in this world. Let’s talk about how to do it consistent with Jesuit tradition.”

Online education encompasses a number of practices. Classroom portals such as Angel, standalone videos like Khan Academy and online universities that provide degrees and certification all fall under this broad header. Hughes thinks that many of these models are ineffective. Education must “develop beyond education dumping, which is not instruction,” Hughes said.

Jodi Kelly, dean of Matteo Ricci College, agreed that online education must be more holistic to truly work. “[Education] is a process of informing, with a view to forming, with a view to transforming,” said Kelly. “Discourse allows you to go out into the world. … It’s never just information.”

Part of the purpose of EdX is to explore the possibilities of online education and how it can be improved.

“What they’re trying to do is really to try to figure out how online education works,” Hughes said. “They’re using this as a test bed as much as anything else.” EdX is still in development, but Hughes speculated that it could evolve beyond simple lectures.

“I think their intent is to create some instruction and interaction,” Hughes said.

Although EdX will not provide any college credit, students can still use online models of education to enrich and supplement their own experience, as long as they hold online classes to the same standards as they would hold traditional classes.

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