CAMBRIDGE - Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will team up on a $60 million initiative to offer free online, college-level courses under a joint superbrand known as edX, the universities said Wednesday.
The Harvard-MIT move - an altruistic giveaway, a potential research bonanza, and an audacious bet on the future of higher education all in one - instantly made the schools preeminent players in the burgeoning worldwide online education sector. The venture joins several major start-ups in recent months across the country.
The full edX program is expected to be up and running by fall.
In December, MIT said it would create Web-based courses featuring discussion forums, short videos, and laboratory simulations under the guidance of its professors and teaching assistants.
Now that Harvard has joined, the universities plan to collaborate on research into how students learn online by monitoring the progress of the hundreds of thousands of people they hope will sign up.
“Through this partnership, we will not only make knowledge more available, but we will learn more about learning,’’ Harvard president Drew Faust said at a news conference. “Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can have access.’’
Standing beside Faust, MIT president Susan Hockfield said: “You can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.’’
Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost, said in a phone call that the venture gives both schools a chance to “collect data that simply hasn’t existed. How much time do students spend with different elements? Do people who go back and repeat a video segment learn better, or worse?’’
Representatives of both schools said they thought the effort would enhance their brands rather than weaken them.
“This is not about diluting or not diluting,’’ said Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost. “This is about giving our students the best education possible. At the same time, once we have the content online, we might as well share it with the world.’’
A person involved in internal discussions said the initial Harvard courses, to be announced this summer, are likely to include one each in computer science, the social sciences, and the humanities.
Although edX will draw faculty and resources from both Harvard and MIT - including initial commitments of $30 million each - it will be an independent, nonprofit entity.
Its ultimate goal goes beyond the two academic powerhouses. Administrators hope other universities will use the technology from the open-source edX platform to deliver their own content.
At least one local university is interested: Suffolk. Its new president, James McCarthy, served on the advisory committee for a major national report on online education that came out Monday.
“The fact that Harvard and MIT have committed to this so strongly is a very good thing. I would certainly consider looking at it,’’ McCarthy said. “But the devil is going to be in the details. I need to know more about the platform.’’
Some critical details of edX remain undecided. For instance, while the venture’s courses will be free, the MIT arm will offer credentials - not diplomas, but “MITx’’ certificates of mastery for individual courses - for a small fee likely to vary depending on students’ means.
The “HarvardX’’ side expects to offer some certificates but does not know whether it will charge for them.
The venture’s first courses will be free to ensure a wide audience, said Michael Smith, dean of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences: “It’s a research environment. We want to be capturing as much information as we can.’’
About 120,000 students signed up for the first MITx course, “Circuits and Electronics,’’ in March.
“The one thing we all had sleepless nights about was, we had 120,000 students enroll - how on earth were we going to support them?’’ said Anant Agarwal, the MIT computer scientist who will oversee edX, invoking the specter of 120,000 questions about a single midterm. But students helped each other, he added, often before teaching assistants could chime in.
Before Wednesday, Stanford University was considered the leading university in large-scale, free education online. It ran three engineering courses last fall that drew hundreds of thousands of students. Their success inspired one of the professors who taught them to launch a private start-up, Udacity.
Two other major for-profit start-ups have launched in the past month.
The Minerva Project aims to offer a full university education online for half the tuition of an Ivy League school. Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers chairs its advisory board. Ben Nelson, Minerva’s founder, said he welcomed edX because his school would be able to use its free materials.
The other start-up, Coursera, is similar to edX, allowing students to choose among free courses. Like Udacity, it is the brainchild of Stanford professors. It launched two weeks ago, featuring classes from Stanford, Princeton University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Coursera’s founders, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, said they were glad to see other universities engage in online education. But they noted that their current offerings are broader than those of edX; they include 40 classes.
The Harvard announcement may spur Coursera to try to make money quickly off its operation, said Nelson, of Minerva, who does not consider either edX or Coursera to be his rivals but said they will compete with each other. “EdX is a direct challenge to Coursera - it’s ‘We looked at them, and we reject the for-profit model,’ ’’ he said.
Harvard met with representatives from Coursera and others in recent months but decided its own project should be strictly not-for-profit, according to three sources involved in the discussions.
MIT was a more natural partner for Harvard - the two universities already collaborate on projects such as the Broad Institute, their joint biomedical research center. Harvard said it felt it needed to act quickly, one of the sources there said: “MIT was forging ahead, and we didn’t want to look like we were playing catch-up.’’
Harvard already offers several Web-based classes for its students.
More than a decade ago, it ran one of the earliest experiments in online learning: a computer science class for 100 on-campus undergraduates and 17 students who attended from afar. The online group fared as well as the on-campus one and produced the class star, a Harvard alumnus from Turkey who aced the final.
That example encouraged Harvard’s continuing-education arm, the Extension School, to put more material online.
But the rest of Harvard was less receptive.
“I think folks found the idea threatening. They were worried about maybe cheapening the Harvard experience,’’ said Henry Leitner, the senior lecturer and associate dean who taught the early computer science course. “Also, it was still a geeky thing to do, and high-quality Internet bandwidth was pretty scarce.’’
Online education is now a juggernaut; nearly a third of current college students have taken at least one Web-based course.
“There’s momentum and zeitgeist in this area,’’ said Kenneth Koedinger, a computer scientist and psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, which has a longstanding research program in online learning. But asked what was still unknown about how to teach effectively online, he said, “almost everything.’’
The edX announcement may meet with skepticism from some faculty, especially humanities professors who doubt the efficacy of essay-grading computer programs that edX may use. Coursera’s founders refused to use the programs in their own courses.
Debra Satz, a Stanford philosophy professor, said she had her doubts. “Maybe a robo-reader could pick out crude markers of difference between papers,’’ she said, “but I can’t imagine one looking at an argument about the morality of consequentialism and assessing the objections to it.’’Correspondent Johanna Kaiser contributed to this report. Mary Carmichael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.