Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): edX

EdX Logo.PNGWelcome back to our 5 part series on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). If you missed it, we’ve already taken a broad look at MOOCs as a whole and an overview of what taking an MOOC is like. Today we’re looking more closely at one of the top platforms on the web, edX.

While many MOOC platforms have partnerships with major universities, or are founded by current/former university professors and faculty, edX is unique in that it is the only major MOOC platform founded specifically by a University. Not just one University either but rather a partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Founded in April 2012, edX’s goals “combine the desire to reach out to students of all ages, means, and nations and to deliver these teachings from a faculty who reflect the diversity of its audience.” An admirable goal, but not entirely selfless as they also state that “[Harvard and MIT] will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning-both on campus and worldwide.”

edX Courses

If this research has gleaned any insight into student behavior in its first year it is surely that students are hungry for more. Former Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and current edX President, Anant Agarwal has expansion on his mind. Currently edX offers 15 classes from HarvardX, MITx and BerkeleyX but plans to add WelleslyX, GeorgetownX and the University of Texas System to its roster by fall 2013. With more than 200 institutions around the world expressing interest in collaborating with edX, Agarwal has quite a selection to choose from and looking even further ahead, edX plans to offer courses from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, McGill University, University of Toronto, Australian National University, Delft University of Technology, and Rice University in 2014.

Like most MOOC platforms, edX does offer certificates to students who successfully complete courses. Called a ‘certificate of mastery,’ each certificate is awarded ‘at the discretion of edX and the underlying X University that offered the course under the name of the underlying “X University” from where the course originated.” Essentially, if you come to edX and take an artificial intelligence course that is offered through edX by MITx, then your certificate of mastery will come from MITx and not edX.

One big question surrounding MOOCs is monetization. How can any MOOC platform stay in business if it’s giving away its service for free? One way edX plans to keep the lights on is by charging ‘a modest fee’ for certificates down the road. However if you were fortunate enough to start a course in Fall 2012 then your certificate will be as free as your class. Down the road I expect all MOOC platforms will adopt some sort of fee associated with their certificates because honestly that’s the part that with the most value in the working world.


Signing up with edX is simply and straight forward. In honesty more personal information is required for most online purchases you make than to sign up for edX. After setting up your account, browsing courses is akin to browsing any online store, with a very concise product description and even a video introduction for most. The start date and any prerequisites are clearly stated and pictures and short bios on the course staff are listed. Registering for a class takes one click and which adds it to ‘Current Courses’ on your home dashboard.

Course List

From your dashboard, it’s easy to manage any number of courses (that you think you’ll have time for). Each course is equipped with its own dashboard which gives you quick access to several tabs set up at the discretion of the staff, but the most common are:

  • Courseware: Your actual course material including lecture videos, quizzes, self assessments and reading assignments.
  • Course Info: Initially an “about” section that is updated frequently by course staff and serves as source for news and updates about the course
  • Discussion: an easily navigated student/staff discussion forum where students can ask questions and discuss the material with each other and staff.
  • Wiki: a sort of FAQ to the course and using the edX platform.
  • Progress: A sort of report card on the entire class’ performance in the course, broken down by week.

edX Courseware

The courses themselves are easy to follow along with on the Courseware tab. On this tab, the left hand column gives you easy navigation to any part of the course. Some professors divide the course into ‘Hours’ while some call them ‘Weeks” but in any case the tabs on the left hand menu open to reveal the contents of each section of the overall course. These sections will include all lectures, lab videos, problem sets, homework, quizzes and reading/resource materials.

edX quiz

Following along with each lecture is also very straight forward, with an easy navigation bar across the top with content displayed below. You can skip between sections of the lecture or simply follow along with the predetermined order of lecture videos, self assessments and class quizzes. Each course will use the edX organization structure in different ways, but everything will be grouped similarly making the navigation learning curve very short.

I believe edX has done a great job of setting up an organizational framework that hits the median between student needs and faculty needs. After minimal exploration, students will quickly grasp the structure each course is organized into and even feel comfortable picking up a course in progress and getting caught up. On the other hand, faculty seems to be making use of a fair amount of customization of that same structure to bend the edX platform to fit their specific course needs.

EdX has a lot of growing planed in the next couple years, but the platform is positioned to make expansion seamless. The only pressing question for long-term growth and sustainability is how edX will go about monetizing their platform. Charging for certificates seems very natural but how much will they cost? Will there be a universal pricing structure or will it vary by XUniversity, by course? We’ll have to wait and see but as long as the pricing is reasonable and the courses stay free I see no reason to complain.

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