The New York Times reports that Berkeley has joined EdX, the online education project started by MIT and Harvard. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that while Berkeley won’t be investing in the project—Harvard and MIT have kicked in $30 million apiece—it will contribute “a new online education platform” that engineers at Berkeley have been developing.
I’m fascinated by the evolution of this, because I really don’t have a sense of the point of online education or where it’s going. Why give away intellectual property for free? (Well, for free so far.) That spreads your brand, I guess, but does it really help the brand, or does it cheapen it? How good is the quality of online education? My intuition would be that it doesn’t compare to the classroom experience, but I have to admit, this is based on the fact that I once tried to take a course online and quickly grew way too distracted to keep “attending.” If EdX eventually gives degrees of some sort, doesn’t that devalue a Harvard diploma? Or are universities just doing it because everyone else is doing it, and they’re afraid they’ll be the last one standing when the music stops?
Here’s an example: One of the two courses Harvard now offers at EdX is CS50, basically, intro computer science. It tells students that they will have to do eight problem sets requiring 15-20 hours of work apiece. That’s a lot of hours. If you complete the work successfully–how on earth would anyone know if you’re cheating?—you’ll get “an honor code certificate from HarvardX.”
Whee! Exciting! You can cheat to pass, but you’ll still get “an honor code certificate.”
I’d be genuinely interested to hear Drew Faust lay out an extended vision for online education, but most of what she has said goes like this snippet, quoted by Harvard magazine:
…Faust focused on the “unprecedented opportunity to dramatically extend our collective reach by conducting groundbreaking research into effective education and by extending online access to higher quality education…in a way that benefits our students, our peers, and people across the nation and the globe.”
That’s interesting. Oh, wait—it isn’t. I just fell asleep. But I think Faust is saying that online education is good because it helps Harvard learn more about online education. And it’s good for students and stuff “around the globe.”
Despite all the highfalutin’ rhetoric, EdX is probably just a way to make money by giving people a taste of free, then up-sellling them—like an app and an upgrade. Basically, in other words, it’s the Extension School online. And the Extension School is…you know…kind of a joke. (I should know—I once taught there.)
But you can get a diploma from it that says Harvard, and I’ve seen people out in the workforce proudly touting their Harvard diplomas which, on closer examination, turn out to be Harvard Extension School diplomas. And this is good for Harvard why?