MIT and Harvard say open-source edX can educate a billion people

MIT and Harvard, two neighboring universities which often compete for top students, are now collaborating on free online courseware technology. Starting next fall, both schools will offer free courses using a platform based on MIT’s previously announced MITx technology.  MITx enables the creation of online classes that knit together video segments, embedded quizzes, interactive feedback, online labs and student-ranked Q&A.

While students taking online classes won’t get the same credit as those taking traditional coursework, they can get “Certificates of Mastery.”  As GigaOM reported last December, that could give students considering a for-profit college pause. A certificate from Harvard or MIT might be seen as more valuable than a degree from a for-profit institution like the University of Phoenix. And, given the skyrocketing cost of attending a name-brand college (or even a no-name college for that matter), free options like this may become even more enticing. Harvard and MIT officials said the online coursework will not be “Harvard light or MIT light” but be same material offered to in-class students.

One inspiration for the effort was the not-for-profit Khan Academy founded by Salman Kahn. Its online classes have been lionized by luminaries including Microsoft(s msft) co-founder Bill Gates.

According to a joint statement from the schools, their new edX partnership

… will be overseen by a not-for-profit organization based in Cambridge, Mass., to be owned and governed equally by the two universities. MIT and Harvard have committed to a combined $60 million ($30 million each) in institutional support, grants and philanthropy to launch the collaboration.

The underlying technology will be open-sourced and made available to any educational facility wanting to use it. Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a driving force behind edX  said the technology could educate up to 1 billion people. “Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can have access [to edX],” said Harvard President Drew Faust.

Check out Wednesday’s press conference where Agarwal, Faust and MIT president Susan Hockfield, announced the project.

Video streaming by Ustream

 Feature photo courtesy of Flickr user First Daffodils