ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Young.

ANU Vice Chancellor Professor Ian Young. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The Australian National University is one of six international institutions who will join the online learning revolution through a partnership with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s web-based course platform edX.

Edx has announced on Thursday the global expansion of its international partners to include the ANU, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, McGill University and the University of Toronto in Canada, and Rice University in the United States.

The ANU will contribute two courses by 2014, including Astrophysics, taught by Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt and Dr Paul Francis, and Engaging India by Dr McComas Taylor and Peter Friedlander.

edX is a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC which caters for 900,000 enrolments globally. Founding universities are Harvard, MIT, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Texas System, Wellesley College and Georgetown University.

Harvard and MIT have contributed $30 million each to edX with the new partner institutions contributing a further $20 million between them as well as in-kind services. The ANU did not wish to disclose the specific amount it contributed. 

While MOOCs are similar to university courses delivered on the web, they are not transferrable for university credit although students can receive a certificate of completion. Other prominent MOOC providers include Coursera – which the University of Melbourne joined last year - and Udacity, although these operate as commercial enterprises.

Edx president and MIT Electrical Engineering Professor Anant Agarwal told Fairfax Media that edX aimed to provide free online education to one billion people within the decade.

“Edx takes a non-profit approach to education. We believe education is a basic right for human beings and we should not be profiting from it.”

Professor Agarwal said edX had been approached by over 250 institutions for membership over the last year but was being “deliberate about adding universities. We are looking for the leading universities in the region with some of the top courses. With ANU it was a no brainer…It is the absolute best university in the region and it has some spectacular courses.”

He noted the ANU was delivering unique courses in Sanskrit and Hindi with India coming in as the second largest consumer of MOOCs after the United States.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young said the edX brand was the right fit for the ANU and the partnership had been instigated by Professor Schmidt – a Harvard alumnus.

“Nobody really fully understands yet just what the impact of MOOCs on higher education might be, but just as in other disruptive technologies, the changes could be quite fundamental. I don’t think anyone around the world has a full idea of what this looks like in 10 years,” he said.

“It is something of a revolution, and the ANU wants to be part of it, not sitting on the sidelines watching the bus go by.”

Professor Young also believed the international branding opportunities for ANUx would be hugely valuable, but he maintained confident MOOCs would never threaten the dominance of university campuses to deliver education experiences.

“I don’t think MOOCs are going to supplant what we normally see as full delivery of degrees within our universities, but I think you are gradually going to see more and more students able to access parts of their education through vehicles like edX,” he said.

Professor Agarwal said university campuses would continue to allow students to undertake research with professors and interact with other students – experiences which could not be replicated online.

“A MOOC experience and a campus experience will simply be different.”

A large focus of edX was educational research into how students learnt online.

“One of the most eye-opening things for me is gathering a  huge amount of data on the platform: every student click, the time they do it, what they are doing, what they are learning, their results and outcomes, all of that is being logged. I like to call edX the particle accelerator for learning,” Professor Agarwal said.

The ANU will this year begin testing course content for its two edX courses with the aim of putting them online in 2014.

On Friday, students will be asked to vote for the course they would most like to see made available on edX in the future.