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15 schools join online classroom initiative

Berklee, BU among new edX participants

CAMBRIDGE — A year after Harvard University and MIT launched edX, a not-for-profit initiative that offers online classes at no charge, the group announced Tuesday that it is doubling the number of participating universities, with the Berklee College of Music and Boston University among the new members.

Fifteen higher education institutions are joining, including many from Asia and Europe, bringing the total number of schools to 27. About 50 edX classes have already been offered or are currently enrolling students, and 930,000 people have registered to use the website.

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“It’s going like a rocket ship,” Anant Agarwal, president of edX, said in an interview Tuesday, noting that the initiative is growing so quickly it has doubled its university membership again only three months after it doubled in February.

The universities joining, he said, “all have a commitment to high-quality education, a commitment to increasing access to education for students around the world, and also improving campus education.”

EdX offers massive open online courses, or MOOCs, free classes that combine video lectures and other online materials with quizzes and even assigned essays that might be graded by other students or computer software.

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Harvard and MIT each pledged an initial investment of $30 million for what they view as a public mission to help educate people around the globe and to develop new technology to improve learning.

While MOOCs offer some similarities with online courses and even correspondence courses that have been available for decades, the contemporary version has been heralded as a revolutionary force in education.

The courses bring top professors to kitchen tables worldwide, offer online tools to enrich traditional classrooms, and potentially provide a path to a more affordable education, although edX classes do not come with formal credit at the moment.

Despite the prestige of Harvard, MIT, and many illustrious partners, edX faces serious competition, most notably from Coursera, the for-profit venture founded by two Stanford professors.

Coursera has also been growing by leaps and bounds, now boasting 3.6 million participants and 70 partner universities, including a sizable chunk of the Ivy League — Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and Brown.

But for the participants, it is not an either-or proposition. Berklee and the University of Washington, two of the new edX members, also work with Coursera.

Debbie Cavalier, vice president for online learning and continuing education at Berklee, said the music school wants both to reach more students and collaborate with a larger community of innovative educators.

Berklee will initially offer two classes on edX in early 2014, in music business and vocal production technologies, in which students record and produce vocal tracks, Cavalier said.

For the vocals class, students will share recorded clips with one another for critiques.

At BU, Azer Bestavros, a computer science professor, said one of the main reasons for joining edX is to enrich the education on BU's campus. The school plans to create hybrid courses for its enrolled students that combine face-to-face interaction on campus with online work.

Online options might enable more BU students with rigorous schedules to study abroad, he said, while shy students who don't raise their hands in class might feel more comfortable engaging with classmates online.

“We think it is a good fit — the fact that it is non-profit and pushing the technology to make the residential experience better,” said Bestavros, cochairman of BU’s Council on Educational Technology and Learning Innovation.

In addition to BU, Berklee, and the University of Washington, Cornell University, and Davidson College are also among the new US participants.

The new Asian members are Tsinghua and Peking universities, both in Beijing, Kyoto University in Japan, The University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and Seoul National University in South Korea.

From Europe: Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, and the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

The University of Queensland in Australia is joining, as well.

EdX’s students hail from 192 countries, with India attracting the most students after the United States, although the group expects to see demand rise significantly around the world as the new members begin offering courses.

Most of their classes will be in English initially, but they are expected to eventually add classes in several languages.

Agarwal described seeing on one course’s discussion forum students from Pakistan, New Zealand, Colombia, and the United States all discussing a problem.

“I really see how online learning will democratize education, “ he said. “It will really bring the world closer together.”

Even as many of the world's great universities have joined one of the major MOOC providers, others have questioned the wisdom of jumping on the bandwagon.

At Amherst College, faculty voted recently against joining edX, with many concerned that the small college experience that makes Amherst special would not translate well to the online realm.

“EdX has its own noble mission of making certain kinds of knowledge available to vast numbers of people. I don’t want to question that,” Amherst physics professor Kannan Jagannathan said Tuesday. “But rather, that is not what we do at the moment. We need time to think about whether we want to have a mix of that kind of education as well as what we traditionally do.”

Jagannathan said he questioned whether online grading mechanisms being developed will provide the depth of a professor's written comments or an in-person conversation with a student.

“Writing a paper about a poem — one day maybe computers will [grade that paper] as well or even better than humans,” he said. "But I think that day is far away.”

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella. Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com
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