One year, 27 schools, 1 million enrollments

EdX sees new schools, classes, & design

It’s been a little more than a year since edX, the nonprofit online learning enterprise founded by MIT and Harvard, first launched with much fanfare and a lot of press. Now, the enterprise encompasses 27 schools from 11 countries. In the past two weeks alone, edX has added more than half of those schools. At the same time, edX has completely overhauled its website design with the intentions of making it more colorful, sleek, and ultimately more appealing to the world. Finally, last Saturday, edX released its entire source code with the hopes of making the learning platform an open source project to which the community can contribute.

New schools, new courses, new design

The 15 additional schools who have now partnered with edX come from eight countries and four continents. The first higher learning institutions from Asia include China’s Peking and Tsinghua Universities, South Korea’s Seoul National University, Japan’s Kyoto University, and Hong Kong’s University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. The University of Queensland in Australia pledged as well, representing only the second university from Australia to join.

In addition, three European schools, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium, and Technische Universität München in Germany have signed up. Rounding out the continents is North America, with the Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Cornell University, Davidson College, and the University of Washington now onboard. Each of them has been dubbed with an “X” at the end, marking their induction into the edX online learning community.

Although these schools do not plan on offering courses until later this year or next year, edX announced the launch of more than 20 new courses from schools that had joined earlier. These courses run the gamut from WellesleyX’s “Introduction to Evolution” to HarvardX’s “Science & Cooking.” MIT added eight of those courses, which include 24.00x (“Introduction to Philosophy”) and 2.01x (“Elements of Structure”). According to edX’s press release, these courses are designed to incorporate “active learning, game-like experiences, instant feedback, and cutting-edge virtual laboratories” into their classes.

Course Enrollment Data and Demographics

According to Anant Agarwal, President of edX, total course enrollment passed one million in March. However, because some people enroll in more than one class, the total number of unique students has not yet hit one million. Agarwal expects that edX will achieve that milestone within the next two weeks.

In data given to The Tech by MIT’s Associate Director of Digital Learning Isaac Chuang, 6.00x (“Introduction to Computer Science and Programming”) claimed the highest enrollment this spring amongst MITx courses, although 7.00x (“Introduction to Biology — The Secret of Life”) held the highest active percentage, with 13.7 percent. Here, being active implies “having attempted a significant portion of the last major examination.” 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics), MIT’s very first course released last year, only claimed a 2.1 percent active percentage this semester.

In addition, the percentage of female active students varied widely depending on the course. Only 12.2 percent of active students in 6.002x this spring were female, but the percentage jumped to 44.9 percent for 7.00x and 53.1 percent for 14.73x (The Challenges of Global Poverty). Compare this to the percentage of Course 6 and Course 7 majors who are female. At MIT this year, 72.9 percent of Course 7 undergraduate students are female, while only 33.6 percent of Course 6 undergraduate students are. Overall, females constituted 23.9 percent of those who enrolled in MITx courses, and 26.4 percent of those who were active. However, Chuang noted that age and gender are self-reported, and that not all students report their demographic information.

The average enrolled student age was 29.2 years old, while the average active student age was 30.9 years old, slightly under two years older. As for the countries MITx students come from, India was the second most popular country after the United States, both for enrolled and active students. About a fifth (22.1 percent) of active students came from the US, while roughly an eighth (13.5 percent) came from India.

Entire source code released

On June 1, edX released its entire learning platform as open source. The source code can be accessed at

“We believe in pursuing non-profit, open-source opportunities for expanding online education around the world,” the page states. “We believe it’s important to support these efforts in visible and substantive ways, and that’s why we are opening up our platform and inviting the world to help us make it better.”

Prior to this release, edX had begun to release part of its source code in March, starting with XBlock architecture, a software development kit that allows developers to work with course components.

Stanford, UC Berkeley, and the University of Queensland have already contributed to MIT and Harvard’s open source platform. Notably, Stanford, who is a partner with edX competitor Coursera, has agreed to continue collaborating with edX to develop the platform. Stanford ceased development on its own Class2Go system, features of which will be integrated into edX. Recent contributions that Stanford has made include the capabilities of real-time chat and bulk email. UC Berkeley contributed a fully integrated forum software, which was created by a team led by a Stanford graduate student.

Automatic Grading

One of the most important questions currently facing edX is how to improve its automatic essay scoring system, which uses machine learning to grade student-submitted essays. Machine learning systems look for specific features in essays (such as the use of transition words) that can be used to help determine a grade.

On Hacker News, social news site popular within the technology community, LightSIDE Labs founder Eljiah Mayfield expressed disapproval upon seeing the code edX uses for automatic grading. Like edX, LightSIDE Labs has developed a tool which uses machine learning to assess written text.

“Looking through this codebase, it’s roughly the level of machine learning work that I’d expect from a first-year graduate student,” Mayfield posted. “It gets the job done but is really only tailored to the very narrow task of essay grading and doesn’t offer much extensibility. My guess is that for that narrow task, it does a pretty good job, but in my experience teachers are rarely satisfied with just getting a machine learning-generated score and nothing else.”

In contrast, Agarwal told The New York Times in April, “This is machine learning and there is a long way to go, but it’s good enough and the upside is huge. We found that the quality of the grading is similar to the variation you find from instructor to instructor.”

Nevertheless, in an edX blog post on Monday, the president gave a belated celebration of the enterprise’s first anniversary last month.

“The year has gone by so fast I find it hard to believe it has been an entire year until I sit back and consider all that we’ve accomplished together. … As we celebrate our first anniversary, I would like to thank all of the professors and their staff who have put so much effort toward making the edX experiment a success,” Agarwal wrote in his blog post. “I would also like to congratulate the many students around the world who have contributed their unique perspective to our edX courses and expanded their own worlds along the way.”