The ANU joined Anant Agarwal’s edX program on the 21st of February. edX is an initiative be- gun by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology that provides free online courses from participating universities. Cur- rently there are courses available from Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. The inclusion of the ANU as a provider university on the 21st was part of a large scale expansion of the program to include universities from Canada, the Netherlands, Swit- zerland, the United States and Australia. The ANU is the only Australian university in the new edX consortium.
edX is one of a wave of new online learning platforms that have gained media attention un- der the banner of “MOOCs” or “Massive Open Online Courses”, with tens of thousands of stu- dents enrolled in each course. The centre of much of their publicity has been speculation that this form of online learning is the future of tertiary education. But while edX may market itself as a provider of courses from world-class universities there is a very clear line between edX courses of- fered by a partner university and those offered at its campus. edX courses do have assessment com- ponents but they have no way of recording who has completed the assessment. They are clearly differentiated from on campus courses by the “X” code and are not redeemable for course credit at any of the partner universities. Furthermore one of the selection criteria for edX participating universities is their commitment to continued on campus education.
edX is similar to other “MOOCs” like Cour- sera, which the University of Melbourne joined in 2012, in that it professes its goal is to provide universal access to quality education on a diverse range of topics. The programs currently offered are dramatically skewed towards science and en- gineering which will hopefully change shift with its recent increase in participant universities. edX hope is to provide “the best courses, from the best universities by the best professors” and the con- sortium has set the eventual goal of educating 1 billion students. But edX does differ significantly from the majority of MOOCs in that its other major goal is to collect data on its students to re- search teaching methods in order to inform new on campus teaching methods.
In joining edX the ANU has clearly expressed its support for these goals. It also, however, sees this as an opportunity to showcase the quality of its academic and teaching programs and to catch some reflected prestige from the other universi- ties in the current edX consortium. Fittingly As- trophysics, one of the first courses that the ANU will be contributing will be co-taught by the Nobel prize winner Professor Brian Schmidt, who has been a vocal advocate for the ANU joining edX, and Dr Paul Francis. The second course Engag- ing India will be taught out of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific by Dr McComas Taylor and Dr Peter Friedlander. Both courses are scheduled to be operational in 2014. Presumably being part of the edX consortium will also open the possibility of cooperation between the ANU and the other universities, which are all centres for world-class research and education.
edX is primarily orientated to those students who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend the campuses of participating universities. This includes individuals who are geographically sep- arated from these universities but, as Professor Brian Schimdt has suggested, could “more inter- estingly, help us reach high school students and help us make up for some of the deficiencies in secondary education around the country due to shortages of highly qualified teachers”. This pro- posed orientating the courses towards Australian secondary students could prove problematic as early edX data reported by Inside Higher Educa- tion indicates that courses, particularly courses equivalent to later year courses here at the ANU have sharp drop out rates. Furthermore 80% of students judge as performing well in the course indicated that they had taken a comparable course at a university campus.
The same students were overwhelmingly hap- py with the quality of the programs, with only 1% reporting that they were dissatisfied with it com- pared to other comparable on campus courses. Soon students of the ANU will be able to supple- ment their studies with courses taught to thou- sands of students around the globe to their own lecturers but it is unlikely that these courses will ever be a meaningful substitute for on campus education.