School’s Out, Forever

A new online education program from Harvard and MIT is poised to transform what it means to go to college.

edX Online Classes

Illustration by Justin Metz

Brian Ho sits at a desk in his home in ­suburban Honolulu, staring at a computer screen. He’s already worked a full day at his software develop­ment company, but instead of taking this June evening to relax, the self-taught computer programmer is trying to “put together” a circuit on his screen. The 51-year-old attaches wires to batteries, diodes, and capacitors in a virtual laboratory that appears on his monitor. It’s not easy—but then again, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology never has been.

This past March, Ho signed up for MIT’s first online course taught by a real professor, with actual grades. For Ho, who’d barely scraped his way through high school before earning an electrical engineering degree from the University of Hawaii in 1992, this was a chance to take a course at the school he once dreamed of attending. For MIT, it was a test run of a new educational venture it had dubbed MITx. The idea behind MITx is to offer a full class on the Internet, taught by a tenured professor, complete with video lectures, tutorials, and graded assignments. Anyone can sign up, for free. At a time when tuition and fees at private universities are averaging more than $28,000, that price has attracted a lot of interest.

And the MIT project is actually part of a movement. In the past year a new wave of education startups have been pushing the radical notion that knowledge is important, but a diploma isn’t. Whether it’s computer programming or corporate communications, goes the thinking, an expert understanding of the subject is far more important to an employer than a college transcript. And this isn’t just some hazy theoretical musing. Investors are making big bets on it. This past spring, for example, two competency-focused startups offering free online classes—Coursera and Udacity—spun out of Stanford University. Each of them has received millions in venture funding despite lacking a public business model to make money.

MIT was hoping to enroll a mere 2,000 students for its first class on circuits—it was, after all, a course in electrical engineering. Anant ­Agarwal, the professor, took his on-campus course designed for math and science whizzes and adapted it into an online format. The response was staggering: More than 150,000 students of all ages and education levels, from Massachusetts to Argentina to Pakistan, signed up. Harvard was so impressed that in May, it joined forces with MIT. The two schools pooled $60 million in resources and renamed the venture edX. The stated mission was to educate a billion people around the world.

Many of the students in that first course were like Ho: years out of college and looking to improve their knowledge—or just wanting to be able to say that they were “taking a course at MIT.” The potential of edX, though, goes far beyond teaching older students. It could become an entirely new model not just for undergraduate education, but for education, period. Faculty and supporters argue that it has the potential to transform how students learn. It might also make an expensive four-year degree a luxury in the modern workforce rather than a necessity. By educating the world free of charge, edX could make MIT and Harvard obsolete.

But just how revolutionary is all of this? Is putting a bunch of lectures and playing with circuits online really the same as a well-rounded classical education? And how can classes on the Internet possibly replicate the on-campus experience?

That’s not the point, say supporters. They’re not looking to replicate college, they’re looking to disrupt it. “If people have been skeptical about online learning or its place in the future, edX throws that theory to waste,” says Michael Horn, an executive director of the Innosight Institute, a Silicon ­Valley-based think tank focused on education and healthcare innovation.“To see Goliaths like Harvard and MIT enter the arena sends a powerful signal. It is very exciting and is going to transform education in pretty profound ways.”

In his Hawaii home, Ho types in an answer and within seconds a bright green check mark pops up on his screen. He got the question right. “It’s instant gratification, like playing a video game,” he says. “Everyone who takes the class online says they’re addicted to the green check mark. We joke that this isn’t just an engineering course, it’s also a psychology thesis.”


  • Marissa

    Startups like GatherEducation, which is based in Boston, have developed platforms that promote student engagement and mimic the face to face classroom. While online learning might not replace the traditional classroom, there is no reason it should be viewed as an inferior experience.

  • Tchad Rogers

    I wonder how Cuban, Khan, and other employers willing to fill roles with non-degree holding individuals filter their job applications. I agree with the assertion that ability maters more than a degree, but what credible signals can non-degree holding, entry-level applicants include on a resume? I would like to see realistic, actionable recommendations for employers who need to filter through hundreds of applications to fill a few positions, and how to do that without at least partially considering the educational background of applicants. Like it or not, a candidate with a degree from a top-school is almost always more impressive than a better-qualified degreeless candidate (on paper) because assessing that the latter is better-qualified is incredibly difficult to do based on a couple of sheets of paper. Most of the time, I would argue, the latter candidate never even gets the chance to demonstrate ability, because they are not interviewed.

    • anoncambridge

      I disagree — I am a prospective employer so am taking an edx class myself (the biostatistics class). It’s the ‘real deal’. I’m less impressed with fancy schools than with actual difficult coursework (from at least a halfway-decent school). Too many grade-inflated test takers that just don’t cut it. I need people who can think and then who can ‘do’.

  • SirenoftheSea

    Back when I attended a community college part-time while working full time and worked my way up to a management position in my industry, the college grads hired off the campus at job fairs by my huge corporation often came in with a lack of the basics. Many could not write a sentence let alone a paragraph. Everyone wants the “college experience” and to be “college-educated” but many didn’t crack a book their entire lives and will need to have someone else write their essays or will buy them on line. Education is cheapened while being even more expensive by sending everyone ( and just the ones who can afford it but are not college material) to college. In some countries there is a track for training in trades and one for college, in most cases they have the right idea. I love that these courses will be available from these prestigious schools. The next step should be farm systems for all major league sports and schools only being able to give scholarships to athletes who could actually qualify based on their scholarship not just their athleticism. We have turned our colleges into a training ground for the NFL and NBA and the cheating that goes with that atmosphere.


    Billion people. How can this be done.

    In the Digital world. Infinity is the rule.

    One Digital copy can be reproduced to Millions/Billions copies.

    Beatles. Elvis. Michael Jackson. We can listen to their music online.

    There is NO reason we cannot download the lectures or class Notes or class Homework.

    Apple ceo steve jobs: Richest man in cemetary.

    Professor: smartest professor in cemetary.

    Give it All away. None of us can take it to the cemetary.

    No one should the No 1 professor at the cemetary.

    Give it All away. World will be better place. No one can take anything to the cemetary with them.

  • writing services reviews

    That kind of class is really great. They can be able to discuss and do things perfectly easy and handy. Technologies gives its power that make things easier and it’s good that it was being applied in education.

  • Nabila Naorin

    It does not matter if 4.6% students have passed a course.. the thing is some of these students may not even taken this kind of high standard course in their life without edx’s curriculum because it costs a lot of money in real world.. i think it is a great initiative and can transform the way underprivileged people study