How to Get into Harvard and M.I.T for Free

If you would like to impress your friends, or even better, give your parent’s some bragging rights amongst their peers whose kids are all M.D.s, or federal judges, you too can have some of the prestige afforded to an Ivy Leaguer. Even if your SAT scores were not at the elite strata, or even if you cannot claim a legacy slot from mom or dad (Do those still exist?) you too can have the cachet of an Ivy League certificate by simply enrolling in edX.

So what is edX? From the edX homepage:

EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT. (edX, 2014).

The architects of the edX learning environment have taken a very deliberate approach in the design of their distance learning infrastructure and course offerings. EdX has many features that would be familiar to those knowledgeable of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) that became very popular in academia a few years ago; however, edX’s approach is to use the best of the concepts and certainly the spirit that characterize MOOCS but edX also blends in other distance learning methods that are successful in other online delivery modes such as courseware management systems (CMS). Will Oremus describes how edX differs from the rest of the distance education pact in his article on Slate, Forget MOOCs which discusses the backlash against MOOCs which were in vogue a few years ago and how edX is advancing distance education:

Like Coursera and Udacity, EdX began by offering full-service online classes for free, taught by professors at Harvard and MIT, the initial partners in the venture. Unlike Coursera and Udacity, though, EdX is a nonprofit, which frees it from the expectations of venture capitalists … As a result, EdX has appeared less focused on getting big quickly and more open to experimentation in terms of how it can best serve professors and students. One of those experiments is what UC–Berkeley professor Armando Fox calls SPOCs—“small private online classes,” as opposed to massive open ones. (2013).

Viewed through the lens of best practices for distance education EdX hits the mark in many key areas. Enrolling in edX was a very simple process that only required an email validation to register as a full-time student. Since the course offerings were more along the lines of full term modules, I elected to take the edX orientation course to sample how the designers adhered to recommended practices for online instruction. The SPOC approach was evident in the layout of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) which was similar to those in other online environments such as Canvas Instructure or BlackBoard™ but the structure was what I would describe as simple yet elegant as it requires fewer user interactions to access sites or content and the design was uncluttered. A balanced array of multimedia technologies follows the guideline that there is no single best technology for distance learning. Common GUI offerings included Courseware (interactive content), Discussion areas, Wikis, and Course Handouts.

The edX architects recognize the importance of social interaction between students and students and instructors. There are several social media venues on edX from their own “edX Meetup Community” which encourages “study buddies” in the same geographical area to have face-to-face encounters. There are also edX communities on popular social media sites such as Google+ and Facebook.

One of the better aspects of edX is that a stated objective of the stewards of this distance learning program is to use feedback from students and instructors to improve the instructional outcomes of the online courses and further understanding of best practices through research. From the edX About webpage:

Our goals, however, go beyond offering courses and content. We are committed to research that will allow us to understand how students learn, how technology can transform learning, and the ways teachers teach on campus and beyond. As innovators and experimenters, we want to share what we discover. The edX platform is available as open source. By conducting and publishing significant research on how students learn, we will empower and inspire educators around the world and promote success in learning. Our aim is to become a leading resource for learners and learning worldwide by staying focused on the goals and principles set forth when forming edX. Our goals: Expand access to education for everyone. Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online. Advance teaching and learning through research. (edX 2014).

EdX is an evolving work in progress that progressively refines its processes and best practices for the distance learning environment. With its “kaizen” approach with incremental bottoms-up driven improvements, a stable of Ivy League instructors, and an elegant and effective CMS, edX will likely have a long run. It may even be around to prove the statement by “Stanford artificial-intelligence whiz Sebastian Thrun who predicted that within 50 years there would be only 10 institutions of higher learning left in the world” should come true. (2013).

Registering with edX costs nothing and all you need is a valid e-mail address. Though it is a free online learning environment controlled by the sponsoring academic institutions and not a consortium of investors, edX does charge fees for its course completion certificates as explained in edX’s terms of service (TOS). Currently the certificates are awarded for demonstrated mastery of a topic based on the University’s standards and are printed with the University’s branding; however, the certificates do not carry any weight when it comes to being part of an official academic transcript. Still, it would look nice to see a Harvard crimson logo on a frame up on the wall. (edX TOS, 2014).

References:

edX Terms of Service and About. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from: https://www.edx.org/

Oremus, W. (2013). Forget MOOCS. Article. Slate Online Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/09/spocs_small_private_online_classes_may_be_better_than_moocs.html

Oremus, W. (2012) The New Public Ivies. Article. Slate Online Magazine. Retrieved http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/07/coursera_udacity_edx_will_free_online_ivy_league_courses_end_the_era_of_expensive_higher_ed_.html

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