UC Berkeley joins Harvard, MIT in program providing free online classes

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UC Berkeley is joining Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make university courses available to anyone with Internet access.

edX — the online learning portal developed in May by MIT and Harvard — announced the addition of UC Berkeley to the X-University Consortium on Tuesday. In the fall, two classes taught by campus professors will be available through BerkeleyX — “Artificial Intelligence” and “Software as a Service.”

There is no admissions process required to take edX classes, and people who pass the classes receive a certificate, but no college credit.

When MITx originally launched its prototype class in December, 150,000 people around the world enrolled in the class and 7,000 people earned their certificate for the class.

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said in a Tuesday conference call that he believes UC Berkeley’s participation in edX will round out the X-University Consortium as well as benefit the people enrolled in the program.

“We complement the East Coast private universities with one public university, and we will represent the other universities,” Birgeneau said. “It’s a win-win for UC Berkeley and edX, and people in developing countries and community colleges will benefit from having access to high level courses.”

edX is the third online education platform the campus will be utilizing. Currently, it offers courses for credit through UC Online as well as classes that do not offer credit toward graduation through Coursera.

UC Berkeley adjunct Associate Professor Armando Fox and Professor David A. Patterson will teach “Software as a Service,” and “Artificial Intelligence” will be taught by Assistant Professor Pieter Abbeel and Associate Professor Dan Klein.

Members of the consortium said it is an advantage the classes available online are also taught in the professor’s respective university, since the pace, homework assignments and rigor are the same.

“As far as comparing the online offerings to their campus counterparts, the only difference is that, at Berkeley, we do a software prototype project in the classroom, and we haven’t figured out how to do it online,” Fox said. “It would be great if online students could interact with teachers, but we have to solve one problem at a time.”

In developing the edX version of “Artificial Intelligence,” Fox said he was careful to keep difficulty of the class at the same level that students taking the class on campus would encounter while making the class accessible to a large numbers of people.

“We have been developing the kind of technology to scale it up to the number of edX enrollments without compromising the rigor and high standards,” Fox said.

Although the seven classes currently being offered by edX are all geared towards science and engineering, Anant Agarwal, president of edX, anticipates that in the future edX will expand the range of subjects offered.

“Over time, we will be glad to offer courses in all disciplines, and we will definitely be looking into working with many non-science, non-engineering classes,” Agarwal said.

According to an EdX press release, the consortium hopes to add additional universities in the future.

Because edX is non-profit, Harvard and MIT each contributed $30 million to the consortium in May, and two Harvard and MIT alumni have donated to the program. In addition, edX received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earlier this summer.

Despite these significant financial contributions, the developers of edX are attempting to formulate a plan to generate funds in order to eventually become self-sustaining.

According to Agarwal, one approach to keep edX self-sustaining is to charge a modest fee for certificates issued once a student completes an edX course, or charging for the issue of online textbooks.