Entire UT System to join edX

UT hopes to offer at least four edX courses by Fall ’13

The University of Texas system — nine universities, six health centers, 212,000 students and 19,000 faculty — announced yesterday it would join edX, the MIT-pioneered online learning platform and university consortium. The move sextuples the number of institutions involved with edX, from three to eighteen, and bolsters MIT’s efforts to make online technology a staple of university education.

The UT system will also contribute $5 million to edX, a non-profit corporation headed by former CSAIL director Anant Agarwal. The contribution is much less than those of the founding edX partners — MIT and Harvard each contributed $30 million — but more than University of California, Berkeley, which contributed no funds but promised technical assistance in developing the platform.

In a press conference on Monday, UT system Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa emphasized how he believed edX could effectively but inexpensively improve education at the Texas universities. There was a notably lesser focus on how edX courses could provide cheap or free education on a global scale — an idea that got the spotlight when MITx was announced late last year, and when Harvard and MIT announced the formation of edX.

“We are excited about this partnership with edX and honored to be in the company of such exceptional institutions as MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley. The mission of edX aligns perfectly with that of the UT system and keeps the learner as its central focus,” said Cigarroa. EdX “will allow us to diagnose and address student learning difficulties more easily” and “help them graduate on time,” he added.

UT system officials said their universities would use a “blended model” of education, in which courses and degrees would be a combination of online and in-person components. Development of the “blended model” and pedagogical research would happen through UT’s Institute for Transformational Learning, founded this year to improve educational outcomes, raise graduation rates, lower costs, and improve college readiness in Texas. The efforts to improve outcomes and lower costs come in part as a response to pressure from Texas Governor Rick Perry that public universities offer cheaper degrees.

“We view this partnership with edX as an incredible opportunity to give our students access to the highest quality courses in the world,” said UT Brownsville President Julia Garcia. “[We] also seek to improve large gateway classes that see high rates of student failures.”

The UT system announcement marked the first time edX was concretely and repeatedly described as a way for other American universities to give its students access to courses previously taken only by Harvard, MIT, or Berkeley students.

“This is a plan that is sustainable,” said Gene Powell, chairman of the UT Board of Regents. “We will keep 100 percent of our revenue, and we will better meet the learning needs of a wide range of students.”

The UT System hopes to offer at least four courses on edX by Fall 2013, though it is not yet clear whether UT students will immediately be able to get degree credit from them. Eventually, UT students would be able to pick edX courses from any other school in the system, or take courses offered by Harvard, MIT, or other universities that join the platform.

“EdX courses are not Internet versions of old-fashioned correspondence courses,” said Cigarroa. Any edX courses from UT schools would need to meet standards of rigor, but those standards were not specified.

And though UT system officials strongly indicated the partnership with edX was principally to improve its own educational programs, they did touch on a global education component. David Callender, president of the UT Medical Branch at Galveston, said that the UT health institutions were eager to use edX to offer medical, nursing, and healthcare courses for worldwide consumption.

EdX is hardly the only game in town when it comes to MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. Coursera, a for-profit started by Stanford University professors earlier this year, has partnered with 33 universities to offer nearly 200 courses via a platform similar to edX. Udacity, co-founded by Stanford professor and Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, offers 14 courses, mostly in computer science.

Cigarroa said the UT system considered alternatives, but ultimately decided on edX because it is non-profit, run by academics, open-source, and “aligned with our vision” for a “blended model” of education. “We wanted to make sure production quality was high,” he added, citing confidence in MIT/Harvard’s leadership. (EdX is not yet open-source, but its backers have promised that at some point it will be.)

At Monday’s press conference, Agarwal said that edX will be announcing its spring lineup of courses in the coming weeks, which will include subjects on history, law, and justice. Those courses would complement the seven that edX already offers, most of them about computer science and electrical engineering.