City Smarts

How Boston is planning to use online education to turn its neighborhoods into mini campuses.

Last May, when MIT and Harvard first announced their plans to offer free online college courses to anyone through a joint nonprofit called edX, Mayor Tom Menino took notice. Within a few months, he had approached Anant Agarwal, edX’s president, about how the city could engage with their course offerings, now supplied by 12 universities across the country. The result is BostonX, a slate of online courses that will be made available at community centers and libraries in the coming months. “Higher education is at a point of transformation, and our city should be at the center of that,” Menino says. “Colleges and universities are tackling the big questions of cost, of quality, and of how to make use of a wave of new technology. In Boston, we have always led in higher ed, and we should lead its reimagination.” The concept is in its early stages, but its goals are twofold. The city hopes to provide access to education for those who don’t have high-speed Internet or computers at home. And, according to Menino, it wants Boston’s community centers to “become mini campuses over time.”

Skeptics of online education argue that students who learn in isolation don’t engage in the critical thinking that takes place in a classroom. But Agarwal says that the plans for BostonX will help bridge that gap. For one thing, the program will allow people to participate and discuss online courses together at one location. “BostonX centers could be a lightning rod,” he argues, “to attract a number of community members together around online learning.”

Agarwal hopes the centers’ proximity to the actual campuses where the courses are being taught will encourage the professors to visit with BostonX students face to face. And he envisions something called ClubX—a network of volunteer teaching assistants who could help administer the classes in neighborhood centers.

Meanwhile, the BostonX team is currently working up a schedule of classes that will appeal to a wide range of learners, and also plans to help develop skills well suited to another of the mayor’s pet interests: our growing “innovation economy.”

Even in its infancy, BostonX has been a powerful idea. Ever since the mayor’s announcement, the edX offices have been taking calls from cities in the U.S. and Europe that are looking to emulate the collaboration. So what’s next? You won’t have to look far. Agarwal’s already in talks to create CambridgeX.