MIT receives $1 million to support edX partnership

Institute receives award as part of Gates Foundation efforts to boost postsecondary graduation rates.


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MIT has received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support edX, the Institute’s new partnership in online education with Harvard University.

Through edX, announced on May 2, the two institutions are collaborating to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and to build a global community of online learners. It is anticipated that near-term course offerings from a range of MIT and Harvard schools will be included on the edX platform.

The new Gates Foundation grant will support efforts to develop and offer a new, free prototype computer science online course through edX, and to partner with a postsecondary institution that targets low-income young adults to experiment with use of the course in a “flipped classroom” where lectures take place outside the classroom and homework is done in class. Lessons learned will be captured and shared to advance understanding of how faculty and students use and benefit from online learning tools, as well as how these courses may be adapted to support on-campus learning and a broader range of learners.

Grant builds on institutional support

MIT and Harvard have committed to a combined $60 million ($30 million each) in institutional support, grants and philanthropy to launch edX, which is overseen by a not-for-profit organization owned and governed equally by the two universities. EdX is headed by Anant Agarwal, former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who led the development of the MITx platform under the leadership of MIT Provost and President-elect L. Rafael Reif.

EdX builds on both universities’ experience in offering online instructional content. The technological platform established by MITx, which will serve as the foundation for the new learning system, was designed to offer online versions of MIT courses featuring video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories and student-paced learning. Certificates of mastery will be available for those who are motivated and able to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material.  

MIT and Harvard expect that over time other universities will join them in offering courses on the edX platform. The gathering of many universities’ educational content together on one site will enable learners worldwide to access the course content of any participating university from a single website, and to use a set of online educational tools shared by all participating universities.

EdX will release its learning platform as open-source software so it can be used by other universities and organizations that wish to host the platform themselves. Because the learning technology will be available as open-source software, other universities and individuals will be able to help edX improve and add features to the technology.

MIT and Harvard will use the jointly operated edX platform to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online. The edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful. The findings of this research will be used to inform how faculty use technology in their teaching, which will enhance the experience for students on campus and for the millions expected to take advantage of these new online offerings.

Investments in breakthrough learning models

The new grant to MIT is part of $9 million in new Gates Foundation funding, announced today, to postsecondary initiatives that are fundamentally redesigning how students learn, how they are supported in that process, and how the postsecondary business model works to support affordable student success. These are intended to significantly boost the number of students who attain a high-quality and affordable postsecondary credential. These grants support a range of innovators from within and outside the postsecondary education system who are creating options that fit with the busy lives of today’s students, enabling them to earn a credential with value in the labor market without incurring significant debt.

“We have to challenge ourselves to rethink our longstanding assumptions about postsecondary education in the United States,” says Josh Jarrett, deputy director of postsecondary success at the Gates Foundation. “Postsecondary education faces very real challenges in helping more students, particularly low-income students and students of color. Seat capacity is tight, tuition is skyrocketing, completion rates are low, and millions are unqualified for highly skilled jobs.  We have to do something differently, and that’s what these investments in breakthrough learning models are about.”

The new grantees — which also include EDUCAUSE, the MyCollege Foundation, the University of the People, and the League for Innovation in the Community College — are employing a diverse range of strategies and features, including competency-based learning, online and hybrid formats, open education resources, adaptive assessment and social media. All grantees are focused on quality that can be widely replicated, and will participate in a common evaluation to understand program quality, impact on student outcomes such as time to and cost of completion, and costs of delivery compared to traditional learning models. Each of these grants is part of a larger effort to spread best practices and promising models across the postsecondary sector.

“We are excited about this new package of grants,” Jarrett said.  “We need to try new models to postsecondary education because students are demanding quality, affordable options and our nation needs more highly skilled graduates. We are thrilled to support these innovators in demonstrating what’s possible and learning what works.”


Topics: EdX, MITx, online learning, President L. Rafael Reif

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