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UC Berkeley to join Harvard and MIT in online course offerings

EdX, a joint venture established this spring by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to offer free online classes, is getting a high-profile West Coast partner: the University of California, Berkeley.

The $60 million initiative, which will offer seven classes in the fall, gives millions of people around the world the chance to take college-­level courses for free through the open-source platform. The addition of UC Berkeley, being announced Tuesday, thrusts one of the country’s top public universities ­into the burgeoning online education sector.

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The announcement was made a week after Coursera, an interactive venture with similar goals, named a dozen new university partners. Coursera, started by two Stanford computer scientists a year ago, will now offer more than 100 online courses through its alliances with Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia, and other elite institutions. Professors at Berkeley are also experimenting with offering classes on Coursera’s platform.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX, said he hopes to see his enterprise ­expand further.

“Since our announcement in May, a large number of universities around the world have ­approached us,” he said, but added that only schools with a “commitment to the common cause” and a “deep passion” for improving education worldwide will be accepted.

Agarwal said Berkeley fit that description.

“We’re really looking to Berkeley to bring a lot of diversity,” he said.

‘Since our announcement in May, a large number of universities around the world have approached us.’

Anant Agarwal, president of edX 
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Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley chancellor, said his school shared goals for online education with MIT and Harvard.

“All of the principles that edX announced exactly matched ours,” Birgeneau said by phone, such as a deep commitment to research. He also cited the fact that edX is a not-for-profit enterprise; Coursera is a for-profit venture.

“This was a very natural way for us to move forward,” he said.

Birgeneau said Berkeley has had its own success with online courses. He recalled a US soldier serving in Iraq who took online classes with the school and said it was the only thing that kept him alive.

“There’s an incredible range of people who are going to benefit from having these courses available online,” he said.

Agarwal estimated that several hundred thousand people will sign up for EdX classes this fall. There will be seven courses offered: “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical and Public Health Research” and “Computer Science 50” from Harvard; “Artificial Intelligence” and “Software as a Service” from Berkeley; and “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming,” “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry,” and “Circuits and Electronics” from MIT.

Noticeably absent from the initial offerings was a course in the humanities, whose subjects present challenges for online grading because assignments tend to be more open to interpretation.

MIT launched the circuits and electronics course in ­December through a program called MITx. Agarwal said a 15-year-old from Mongolia scored 100 on the course.

He said there is no limit on the number of edX courses a person can take at a time. When students demonstrate mastery of a course, they can receive a free certificate of completion. The certificates may not be free in the future, how­ever. The university is considering whether to charge a small fee that could vary depending on students’ means.

He said edX hopes to offer several more courses in the spring, but does not want to sacrifice quality in the race for quantity.

“We are running like a not-for-profit start-up company,” Agarwal said. “You want to grow in a very controlled manner so that you can execute well on what you’re doing.”

Melissa Werthmann can be reached at melissa.werthmann@globe.com.
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