5 Ideas for EdX, Harvard and MIT's New Online Initiative

On May 2nd, the education world welcomed EdX, Harvard and MIT's $60 million online partnership that promises to upend higher education as we know it. At the launch event, MIT President Susan Hockfield, Harvard President Drew Faust and a handful of project administrators outlined a collaboration intended to enhance learning for both residential and online students via shared content on an open-source platform.

Projects like EdX suggest that information not only wants to be free, lots of intrepid learners want it to be free as well. Helping that smart but poor kid in Cambodia/Cameroon/Canada (with a robust internet connection) gain access to great teaching materials is a noble cause.

But $60 million is not that much money to establish a non-profit organization that will provide no-cost, quality education to all, and MIT Provost Raphael Reif noted that EdX needs to become financially self-supporting. How can this project be sustained over time? $60 million just doesn't buy what it used to. Here are a few potential ways that EdX might be considering to leverage their considerable assets, ranging from 'likely' to 'wild speculation':

  1. The underlying software will be open source and not for sale. However, EdX could easily use its open source version to develop custom iterations for paying corporate clients.
  2. Similarly, it may well be that the open source EdX version is merely a stepping stone towards a more elaborate, fee-based version, one that will grant actual MIT or Harvard degrees as opposed to 'certificates' whose value are unclear and untested. If Harvard and MIT can move towards more remote instruction overall, it can sell off or convert underutilized campus real estate into offices and pocket a considerable sum in the process.
  3. Infrastructure is one thing: killer content is another. It's highly unlikely that Harvard and MIT will share their vast intellectual holdings that will be used to populate the platform (and quite possibly illegal) as freely. I can imagine a subscription model in which schools without the resources to upload and maintain similar sites pay to access EdX materials.
  4. In these economically stratified times, there may be a few potential donors looking to spend their money on something beyond the usual museum wing or private militia. For instance, since 2004 Eli and Edythe Broad have donated over $600 million to support the MIT/Harvard Broad Institute, devoted to medical research. Investing in this Harvard/MIT partnership would also save someone the considerable problem of having to choose which school to endow.
  5. Let's not forget about possibility of selling naming rights, either. Preferably, EdX could nail down a lucrative deal with a funder named Ed or Ted, or even Jed.
  6. If all else fails, EdX can always resort to the classic education fundraising fallback: bake sale.

EdX's embrace of open learning represents a sea change in higher education. While MIT has offered free access to course materials through its OpenCourseWare project for over a decade, Harvard's participation suggests that this model of free pedagogical content is finally a mainstream endeavor. How EdX succeeds in the coming semesters and years, however, depends to a large extent on how well its founders navigate the tricky shoals between free and fee-based learning. I -- and all the intrepid learners online -- are hoping that EdX leads the way in quality, free content for all.

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