Georgetown joins venture to provide courses worldwide

Millions sign up for service begun at Harvard, MIT

WASHINGTON — Georgetown University is joining one of the most prominent ventures in online higher education, a Web platform known as edX that provides courses from elite schools to a global audience for free.

The addition of Georgetown to edX marks the latest development in a fast-growing movement that aspires to connect the ivory tower to the world.

Millions of people have signed up on Web sites for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which offer self-paced learning via video lectures, tests, homework, discussion boards, and digital interfaces.


Advocates say MOOCs will democratize higher education and spark a teaching revolution. Skeptics call it little more than brand promotion.

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EdX, which Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched in May, hosts MOOCs from those schools and University of California at Berkeley. The University of Texas system joined as did Wellesley College recently. Like Georgetown, they plan to add MOOCs to edX next year.

Another MOOC platform, Coursera, launched in April, hosts classes from Johns Hopkins University, the universities of Maryland and Virginia, and 30 other major institutions.

For Georgetown, securing an agreement to work with the site led by MIT and Harvard was a major coup. Two hundred colleges and universities have approached edX about possible partnerships. But the site’s leadership has been selective.

‘‘We would like to have the best courses from the best professors from the best universities,’’ edX president Anant Agarwal said. ‘‘Georgetown certainly brings that.’’


Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, who helped oversee an accreditation review of Harvard, said he and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust began discussing MOOC ventures in summer. DeGioia said it became clear that it would be possible to work with edX as he met with Agarwal at the website’s headquarters in Cambridge, in mid-September.

Details of the arrangement, including financial terms and what online courses Georgetown will offer, remain to be settled. The university expects to build MOOCs in social sciences and humanities, drawing on strengths in areas such as international relations, law, and public policy. The courses would launch by next fall.

Georgetown officials, echoing counterparts at U-Md.,
U-Va., said they hope the MOOC experiments will shed light on how to improve campus instruction. What are called learning analytics — a data trove mined from student interaction with MOOCs — could provide rapid feedback to professors, enabling them to retool lectures and seminars.

‘‘We’re all searching for the optimal blend of face-to-face experience and online experience,’’ said Robert Groves, Georgetown’s provost. ‘‘And the world hasn’t figured that out yet.’’