edX: Online education without a vision

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For university students, October means midterm anxiety and Halloween mischief. For the UT System Board of Regents, however, it’s again time to invest in an unproven, festively punctuated online platform claiming to radically change the 21st-century university experience. Nearly a year to the day after the Board’s Oct. 2011 announcement that it had invested $10 million in myEdu — the online schedule and professor review site formerly known as Pick-A-Prof.com — the Board of Regents announced last Monday that it will now invest $5 million in edX, an open-source online educational platform established by MIT and Harvard.

By becoming the fourth “X University,” the UT System — or UTx, as it is known at edX.org — will join the ranks of MIT, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley by offering online courses through the site. According to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, edX will be used in a variety of instructional settings, including traditional “face-to-face” courses, “hybrid classes” and courses taught entirely online.

For most UT students, online classes are what you take when you want to cross a difficult or pointless lower-division course requirement off of your degree plan. Taking introductory history or beginner physics online from a Texas community college while wearing pajamas in your apartment or sipping a latte at a coffee shop allows students to avoid the rigor and cost of classes taught in person on the Forty Acres. The classes offered by edX are not those classes.

The site offers eight free courses for the fall 2012 semester, including CS188.1x Artificial Intelligence from Berkeley and 6.002x Circuits and Electronics from MIT. These courses are not offered for credit. Next fall, UT is scheduled to offer four courses on the site. While these courses will also be free, the announcements by the Board of Regents and edX allude to the possibility of charging fees in the future if students want to earn credit from the courses they take through the site.

Currently, students receive a certificate of completion upon successfully finishing one of edX courses. In the future, the organization says that this certificate may come at a cost. Additionally, Cigarroa has said that while UT’s initial online course offerings will be “open to the world for free,” the System is considering a tiered content model where certain for-credit courses would cost tuition. His proposal begs the question, what are college students paying for — the knowledge learned in class, or the piece of paper we get afterwards that says we know the material?

EdX says that the rigor of its courses is consistent with its member universities, but the recent addition of the UT System to edX challenges that claim. UT-Austin is not Harvard, and UT-Pan-American is not UT-Austin. Cigarroa indicated that all of the UT System courses offered next summer and fall on the edX website are likely to come from UT-Austin.  So while the entire UT System will benefit from membership in edX, it’s the System’s flagship campus that will be doing the heavy lifting.

UT President William Powers Jr. praises edX’s potential to augment the University’s course transformation initiative, wherein course curricula are redesigned to take advantage of up-to-date learning and teaching technology. “Hybrid” or “blended” university courses, in which some education happens in the classroom and some happens online, leverage the benefits of both learning models to students’ benefit. Fully online courses, like those that will be offered through edX, are as yet unproven substitutes for in-person learning — the kind of learning that has made UT and the other edX consortium schools some of the best in the world.

Like it has done in the music and publishing industries, Internet technology promises to transform standard operating procedure at institutions of higher education. UT administrators and regents would be wise to come out ahead of the technology curve by developing a clear vision for what a technology-based university degree will look like. The UT System’s investment in edX has the potential to lead the way in transformative learning, but so far System leadership has provided no vision for what this might look like. Without one, the partnership appears to be less about leading than about hitching a ride aboard higher education’s flavor of the month.