The scale and ambition of free online courses is about to go up a notch. Big name US universities are teaming up to offer online learning for free. Harvard will be joining MIT on the EdX platform and Stanford, Princeton and others are offering their content for nothing on the Coursera platform. Here in the UK the Open University has been offering free courses on its “OpenLearn” platform for some time and its iTunesU downloads numbered 44,225,000 in October 2011 [1. iTunes U » Impact. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2012, from http://projects.kmi.open.ac.uk/itunesu/impact/%5D.
EdX’s PR boasts their reach will extend to a billion people with their free content.
Maybe MIT/Harvard’s intention in sharing their no doubt excellent learning materials (though some of MITs offerings could use a little QA) is to create a knowledge commons for the betterment of all. However, a $60 million dollar investment [2. Weigel, M. (n.d.). Margaret Weigel: 5 Ideas for EdX, Harvard and MIT’s New Online Initiative. Retrieved May 6, 2012, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/margaret-weigel/5-ideas-for-edx-harvard-a_b_1472769.html%5D suggests other motivations.
Harvard have stated that they believe their face to face courses will benefit from the online offering. This is partly a marketing stance, people pay handsomely to attend Harvard, however since the on-campus students have access to the new materials and new platform, there is clearly something in this. More and more teaching is blended these days: few face to face courses lack some kind of online support and many teachers use online interaction to extend engagement with topics beyond face to face sessions.
Beyond this, large student numbers brings a mass of data on all manner of things, from pedagogy and instructional design to marketing. As Phil Bradley observed of Google: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. MIT and Harvard are oversubscribed but their recommendation to other education providers could be invaluable. Other HEIs might use the courses as gateway qualifications for admissions. This might be seen by government as a convenient excuse to cut funding to community colleges in the US and further afield.