The “Linux” of online learning? edX takes big step toward open source goal

Since launching early last year, edX, the online learning site backed by Harvard and MIT, has emphasized its plans to be an open-source platform. Well, on Thursday, the nonprofit took its first big step in that direction with the release of its XBlock SDK, the underlying architecture supporting edX course content.
On edX, all of the course content, from videos and text to interactive periodic tables and online circuit simulators, is built from XBlock, edx president Anant Agarwal said. By opening up this source code, he continued, developers around the world can now add their own content modules or “blades,” as edX calls them.
(He said the term “blade” comes from the idea that if the edX platform is like the handle of a razor, the architecture enables developers to plug in different blades.)
“We were hard-pressed to imagine how one organization could develop all the blades needed for all courses,” said Agarwal. “By making it open, we get the community to develop these blades using the XBlock architecture. In this way, we hope we can very rapidly increase the breadth of the kinds of things that we’re able to support.”
For now, Agarwal said, they’ve just open-sourced the XBlock software and architecture but over time they plan to open up the rest of the platform through an open-source license. At that point, it will be easier for educators, developers and students around the world to not just contribute new content but integrate with edX in a variety of ways.
In the last year, massive open online classes (MOOCs) provided by edX, as well as startups Coursera and Udacity, have gained considerable traction. Just yesterday, a California state senator proposed a plan that would enable public universities in the state to award college credit for online classes. Coursera and Udacity have enrolled more students and attracted more headlines but edX’s focus is on providing a high-quality, open learning platform. To date, it says about 675,000 students have enrolled and it has announced partnerships with 12 academic institutions (including Harvard and MIT).