Online education provider edX goes global, doubles number of school partners

edX, the nonprofit online course provider launched by Harvard and MIT, has long had a highly international student population — 70 percent of its students are from overseas. But now it will draw its content from schools around the world as well.

On Wednesday, the group announced that it had expanded its X University Consortium with six schools, including its first partners based outside the U.S. The new partners include: Australian National University (ANU), Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, McGill University and the University of Toronto in Canada, and Rice University in Texas. With the new additions, edX now counts 12 academic institutions as partners.

“Our mission is to offer the best courses from the best professors from the best universities – and quality, of course, is a key part of what we’re doing,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “I like to think of edX as a startup company but a nonprofit startup. We put principle over profit.”

In the last year, there’s been much ado about massive open online courses (MOOCs) and edX, along with Silicon Valley startups Coursera and Udacity, has been at the center of the action.  But as recent incidents on Coursera — one in which a professor departed the course midway through and another in which the startup suspended a class after student complaints — have shown, it’s still early days for massive online classes.

Agarwal said edX’s focus is on offering high-quality content, creating an open source platform and researching how students learn online. For edX’s university partners, the platform is a way to experiment with new online learning formats that can be used for distance programs as well as blended programs for on-campus students, and it’s a medium for sharing data and learning from other universities. Given that some of edX’s partners also partner with other MOOC-providers — Rice, EPFL and others, for example, are Coursera partners — it will be interesting to see how nonprofit edX distinguishes its courses from those of its for-profit peers.

While Coursera and Udacity mostly keep student interaction to online discussion forums, some edX students can already communicate with each other via open live online dialogues, poll questions and video conferences with smaller discussion groups. Agarwal said future partners plan to experiment further, for example, Delft said it plans to release all of its MOOC course material under a Creative Commons license. As of now, all of the edX classes are taught in English but he said EPFL is looking into offering classes in French and ANU is interested in classes in Sanskrit and Hindi.

To date, about 675,000 people have enrolled in edX classes but edX says its goal is to educate one billion people in the next ten years. The platform currently offers about 25 courses and with the new partners Agarwal said they expect to offer 50 to 100 courses, in a range of disciplines, by the fall.