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Free first-class tuition at a touch

Updated: 2013-11-25 07:50
By Wang Chao ( China Daily)

When Anant Agarwal taught circuits and electronics in the hallowed halls of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the complicated and intricate nature of lectures often gave students headaches or sent them to sleep.

That doesn't happen now. The solution was to put the lectures online first, which freed up the live classes and allowed students to become more involved in activities, discussion and exploration.

Agarwal, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, was not the first to put course videos online and make them available to the public - Yale University has been doing it for years - but he took it a step further.

Rather than just screening the lecture online, he and his team added Q&A sections, homework and a grading system to the learning platform. Some universities are even granting certificates to students who have finished a series of the e-courses.

The open source platform is called edX, a nonprofit learning enterprise founded by Harvard University and MIT that offers free online courses from the world's best professors and universities to anyone in the world with Internet access.

"We are creating a selected network of the world's top schools, the Xconsortium, to offer the world's best educational experience to anyone who wants it," says Agarwal, president of edX.

EdX, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, consists of 29 leading institutions, including Boston University, Cornell and Seoul National University and, in China, Tsinghua, Peking and Hong Kong universities.

The Chinese branch of the network is called XuetangX (xuetang is Chinese for classroom).

"I hope these Chinese courses can enrich our worldwide course pool and be easily accessible to the world," Agarwal says.

XuetangX is split into two parts: the massive open online public course and a blended learning portal for on-campus students.

Tsinghua University joined edX's Xconsortium in May, becoming the first university in the Chinese mainland to create online courses. Now its star courses History of Chinese Architecture and Principles of Electric Circuits are available on edX.org.

Agarwal does not have a state-of-the-art studio to record the online courses. All he uses is a camera and tablet computer.

"It can be done anywhere," he says. "It is challenging to change the routine way for the first time, but later it can be a lot of fun, because you can be flexible and record it in different ways. You don't need cutting-edge technology to do this, so for our partner schools, hardware requirement isn't a problem. And it certainly will not close doors to partnering schools with less-advanced facilities."

The organization is also working on applications for mobile phones so, in areas such as Africa, where the Internet is not ubiquitous, people can still benefit from open courses.

"After all, buying a cellphone or a computer is much cheaper than paying the university fees," Agarwal says. "Our goal is to educate 1 billion students worldwide in the next 10 years."

Agarwal cites a course at San Jose State University in California as an example of how much difference this blended learning method can make. The percentage of students required to retake the course dropped from 41 percent under the traditional format to 9 percent for those taking the blended course.

Each partner school offers its leading courses and teachers for edX. For instance, Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project, now teaches the Introduction to Biology class from MIT, and Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the political philosopher, fronts the Justice course.

Ashwith R., 24, from Bangalore, India, took the MIT online Circuits and Electronics course as part of a blended class.

"The courses on edX are helping in my preparation for my masters," he says. "We are given real-world problems to solve - and that has changed the way I thought about some projects.

"It gives anyone in the world access to the best teachers out there. It is also free. These two factors mean a lot in places where access to good education is not easy."

This is just part of the story Agarwal tells during a worldwide tour to promote the online learning platform he has founded.

"MIT has been working on this area for more than 20 years, starting when we put pre-class readings and notes online, later adding videos. Now we offer a sequence of courses that may lead to a mini-master."

The courses are also designed for professionals too busy to take full-time programs.

Although edX is nonprofit and has initial funding of about $60 million from MIT and Harvard, it still requires some revenue to be financially sustainable.

To this end, it customizes premium course packages for businesses to use and other packages for corporate and government officials. In the US, the courses have been used by the International Monetary Fund for training. "In China, we have a similar concept to break even," Agarwal says.