When Ben Nelson started The Minerva Project, he based the online school off the idea no introductory classes would be offered. With the amount of other online platforms out there, he thought, “Why charge for something students can get elsewhere for free?”
In an interview with Nelson earlier this year, he claimed students don’t want to feel like they’re one of 100,000 just watching a course, which is why The Minerva Project’s designed to have students viewing a pre-recorded video lecture in real-time, all while interacting over video chat with classmates and professors. To Nelson, students don’t find being one of many “the role of higher education in their book.”
Yet, after speaking with Nelson most recently about whether or not employers would ever take online learning seriously, I asked him about MIT and Harvard’s newest joint initiative edX — another spin on “elite education.” His response was surprising: “It’s very exciting they’re giving an MIT and Harvard education away for free.” Of course, when he approached the panelists on the day of the edX announcement and made the same remark, “they looked horrified,” asking, “Who told you that?”
“You did,” Nelson responded. Even the edX website states, “edX will offer Harvard and MIT classes online for free.” To Nelson, however, that’s not fair. Take the 90,000 people who registered for the first course released on MITx: 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics), an introductory class for undergraduate students. Then take the undergraduate students who pay tuition every year. You have 90,000 students who haven’t paid a dime, and then 4,000 other students paying thousands of dollars for this introductory course.
Unsettled, I hopped on the phone with Anant Agarwal, the president of edX and former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Science Laboratory. When speaking of the price, he referenced automobiles. “You go to the marketplace, and you can buy a Toyota Corolla or a Ferrari,” Agarwal said. “The two are different; they’re different experiences. They take you to place A and place B, but people value a Ferrari more than they value a Toyota.”
Of course, a Ferrari also costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while we could likely agree the price of a Ferrari is absurd, people are still willing to pay it. Why? For the experience. (Just one of the reasons online education won’t replace traditional learning.)
“MITx, Harvardx and edX offer online courses; that’s one experience,” Agarwal says. “And there’s a separate experience — the campus experience,” referring to not only the highly selective, “extremely rigorous” admissions process, but the groups of people talking throughout the day, collaborating on projects, starting companies and wrapping themselves up in deep discussion. “The Harvard and MIT experience is simply a different experience,” Agarwal admits. “Even if students take an online class on campus, they still have face-to-face time with the professor.”
The added bonus of edX, however, is the certification that comes at “a modest fee.” For students who excel in the courses and pass a proctored exam, they’ll soon be able to receive a credential, which Agarwal claims could be integrated into future résumés. If students were taking classes that were “MIT or Harvard hard,” Agarwal says he’d pay attention, later admitting, “Would I blindly hire a person? No. But I would conduct the rest of the interview.”
The edX platform won’t only be offering introductory courses, which we can, hopefully, prove when the first edX courses are announced “within weeks.” And although MIT and Harvard launched edX, they are also offering outside schools the open source software, so they can begin to offer their classes online, as well.
Should schools continue to offer introductory courses, though? “I think [edX] is great for humanity, but it’s an identity crisis,” Nelson says.
Yet, it’s also an amazing opportunity for people around the world who have trouble swallowing the thought student debt’s surpassed one trillion dollars and counting. Clearly, the higher education system needs to change, and online education is one of those changes being made by institutions. What it still boils down to is employers. Would they rather be driving a Corolla or Ferrari?