Harvard classes for Utah students? Yes, and they’ll be free

Would you like your children to take college classes from Harvard – free? Thanks to digital learning, now they can.

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced a nonprofit partnership called edX. The purpose of this partnership is to use digital learning to provide high-quality college courses, with the exact same content as face-to-face courses at Harvard and MIT, to anyone who wants to take them, at their own pace, wherever they may be. As research institutions, they also plan to use the free online courses to study how people learn and to improve the delivery of digital learning. At some point, it is expected that there will be some cost attached to the online courses so that this digital learning program can become self-sustaining. 

This development illustrates the potential benefits that digital learning holds for creating new higher education opportunities at a lower cost for students and families. For instance, imagine the benefits to college students inUtahif they could take free or low-cost general education courses through edX. Rather than paying a high premium to a tenured research professor to teach these courses to a couple hundred students, research-specialists could focus on research and the university could pay much less money to a group of teaching assistant’s that oversee thousands of students and help them with questions and project work.

What’s more, as Khan Academy illustrates, the innovative potential of digital learning is not limited to higher education, but has great potential to improve K-12 public education as well.

So what is holding back the innovative power of digital learning? The answer to that question can be found in comments at the edX press conference from MIT President Susan Hockfield:

Today in higher education generally, you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes, with the possibility of better understanding how we learn and of sharing the transformative power of education far beyond the bounds of any single campus….[MIT and Harvard] come together to say, with conviction, that online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally.

Hostile views toward digital learning among some of education’s special interests, education officials, and policymakers often prevent this innovation from benefitingUtahchildren. Seeing (correctly) that digital learning puts the power in the hands of children and parents, some move to protect their “education kingdom,” as they see it.

Let’s hope that the majority of policymakers and education leaders inUtahchoose to embrace a digital learning vision like Hockfield’s, rather than one driven by power politics.