In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Educational Resources
September 26, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 3

edX: Open Education in the 21st Century

Monday, September 26, 2016

Author: Nina B. Huntemann

This is a moment when the US, and, I would argue, the whole world, needs to educate more students—partly because we need them to help solve the challenges the world is facing, and partly because education is the most powerful social and economic equalizer.

– L. Rafael Reif, President, MIT

edX is an online learning destination and massive open online course (MOOC) provider founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012. In partnership with more than 90 institutions worldwide, edX now offers more than 900 courses to 7 million learners.

A three-pillar mission guides the edX goals and growth strategy:

  • increase access to high-quality education,
  • enhance teaching and learning on campus and online, and
  • advance teaching and learning through research.

Founded and governed by colleges and universities, edX is the only leading MOOC provider that is both nonprofit and open source.

The Genesis of edX

The idea for edX coalesced during the fall semester of 2011 as then-Provost L. Rafael Reif was thinking big about the future of MIT and higher education in general. Low-cost alternatives that leveraged networked communication and information technologies were challenging the rising cost of a traditional, residential college education. How MIT would respond to the risks and challenges facing higher education was of keen interest to Reif, and he shared his ideas in conversation with members of the MIT faculty.

At the time, Anant Agarwal, future CEO of edX, was director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and cofounder of several companies. Like many of his fellow MIT faculty, he works in an environment of experimentation and innovation and is a professor, inventor, and serial entrepreneur. He was also an instructor for the first foundational course in the undergraduate Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) curriculum, 6.002 Circuits and Electronics, which became the first course offered on edX.

Piotr Mitros, future chief scientist at edX and recent MIT PhD, had been developing ways to blend technology, peer instruction, and education based on his experience developing educational technologies for use in Africa. He too had cotaught 6.002 in an experimental version based on project-based learning guided by industry mentors. In a moment of serendipity, the three came together. Reif and Agarwal had been faculty in the same department, and Mitros had worked for both of them as a graduate and undergraduate student.

From the First Course to 90 Global Partners

Mitros developed the software that would become the framework for the edX platform, called MITx. The first course was an experimental online adaptation of Circuits and Electronics, renumbered 6.002x and cotaught by Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald Sussman, EECS Senior Lecturer Chris Terman, and Mitros. The course was made available in February 2012 to MIT students enrolled in the residential 6.002 as a blended learning experience. Enrollment for online learners opened in March. When the 6.002x session ended in early June, more than 150,000 students from around the world had enrolled.

The positive response from both on-campus and online students to 6.002x, the excitement for the MITx platform, and the momentum that MOOCs were gaining in the public discourse all encouraged MIT and Harvard to expand the MITx experiment by creating a nonprofit enterprise to deliver online courses from top universities around the world. MITx became the entity that designs, manages, and organizes the creation of MIT MOOCs and other digital learning tools and materials. The platform and company became edX, with MIT and Harvard as the founding member partners.

Soon after the announcement, the University of California, Berkeley and University of Texas system joined. Today more than 90 global partners, including not only top-ranked universities but also international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and Amnesty International, have joined the edX mission (table 1).

Table 1

Historical Innovations in Open Education and Content Delivery

When Harvard and MIT announced the formation of edX, the unprecedented partnership between two of the world’s best universities set out to advance an enduring principle: open education. The central idea behind this principle—that access to education is a necessary condition for personal, economic, and social progress—has undergirded education initiatives for centuries.

From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Sandra Peter and Markus Deimann (2013), scholars of the history of adult education, trace early forms of open education to Europe in the late Middle Ages, when citizen demand for access to knowledge outside the monastery walls increased with urbanization and migration. This period was followed by the rapid expansion of colleges and universities throughout Europe.

But the institutionalization of higher education during the 15th century included the collection of fees from students, closing access to many. Contemporary critics of higher education claim that the current crises faced by many colleges and universities, particularly in the United States, “can be found in the fate of medieval universities” (DeMillo 2011, p. 126).

Yet even as access to formal, institutional education was closing, the Gutenberg press, public libraries, and self-organized and informal social learning contributed to a renaissance in open education in the 16th and 17th centuries, at least for the literate male populace (Peter and Deimann 2013).

The 19th and 20th Centuries

In the United States, the Morrill Acts of 1882 and 1890 established land-grant colleges and universities to provide access to education as a public service to a growing population (Scott 2006), and the public university system became an anchor for expanding educational opportunities.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created a partnership between land-grant universities and the US Department of Agriculture to provide rural citizens with the latest methods in farming and home economics. A key success of the program was its delivery method: home or community-based instruction. Educators created instructional materials and curricula based on agricultural research conducted at state universities, and brought this knowledge to farmers through community demonstrations and home-based tutorials (Fiske 1989).

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the United Kingdom pioneered open access to higher education by leveraging the cutting-edge technology of its time: broadcast television. Beginning in the 1920s, the UK delivered educational content through the British Broadcasting Corporation’s radio and television network.

Then Britain’s Open University, established in 1969, added the credential of a college degree to the national broadcast tradition in order to bring “high-quality, degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities” (Open University 2016). The first course it offered was in introductory math. The course aired on BBC channel 2 in January 1971 with 25,000 registered students and 100,000 more tuning in to watch the program.

In the United States, local broadcast television and radio stations, and later cable television systems, were mandated to offer some community-focused educational services in the decades before broadband Internet access, though these programs rarely provided a focused curriculum.

Open Platforms for Open Education


Ten years before edX put its first course online, MIT president Charles M. Vest announced a bold initiative to post all of the university’s course materials on the Internet for free (see Miyagawa in this issue). The MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) project made videos, lecture notes, audio recordings, images, and other course materials used in MIT residential courses available online. At the OCW site (, a student can browse—as in a library—thousands of course materials from MIT professors, making the site an excellent resource for the self-directed learner.

In 2002 OCW posted its first 50 courses and a year later had over 500 courses available. As the New York Times reported, MIT chose the path of free and open when many higher education institutions, college course providers, and textbook publishers were looking for a for-profit business solution to deliver content online (Goldberg 2001).

Like the Open University before it, MIT blazed the trail for open access to education by providing university course content for free, and OCW was the foundation for MITx.

edX Innovations

MIT did not, however, offer either access to professors or certificates for completing courses. The innovation that edX has contributed to the advancement of open access to education is the expansion of content to include courses and certification, delivered on an open source platform designed for global scale.

The next step in opening access to education was to make available not just the courseware (content), as OCW had accomplished, but to open the course itself to a world of learners by providing access to the instructor and creating opportunities for peer learning. Thus educational experiences on edX include the course content (e.g., videos, lecture notes, images), instructor-learner and learner-learner interactions (e.g., discussion forums, peer review), and learner outcomes (e.g., graded assignments, certification).

The MITx prototype platform was built to be flexible so professors and universities could design courses in ways that not only accommodated and reflected the pedagogy of the instructor and the institution but also supported improved methods of teaching and learning. To encourage diversity of instruction, various types of assignment and assessment were provided.

The edX platform has evolved to include additional assignment and assessment types, the XBlock component architecture that enables developers to create independent course components and share them with the edX community, and learning tool interoperability (LTI) so that course developers can add educational materials from third-party providers.

Included in Open edX is the course authoring software Open edX Studio; the Open edX learning management system (LMS) that learners use to access course content; the XBlock component architecture; the ORA2 XBlock, which implements an open response assessment problem type; the discussion forum architecture; Open edX Insights, a course analytics tool; and mobile application and ecommerce components.

The public collaboration of the Open edX community returns benefits to the platform as well, as edX member institutions and many unaffiliated organizations have contributed significant platform features. These enhancements include improved hinting from Stanford University, single-sign-on from Google, and a peer instructor XBlock from the University of British Columbia. Open edX also fosters a growing ecosystem of third-party service providers, such as OpenCraft, Extension Engine, Appsembler, eduNext, and IBL Studios.

Global Spread of edX

The edX platform was made available on June 1, 2013, and today is used all over the world to host MOOCs as well as blended residential courses and training modules. Universities, national consortiums, nonprofits, and professional education firms have created Open edX sites. As of January 2016, there were over 200 known instances of Open edX installations running and available online in over 30 countries, hosting more than 3,000 courses.

Offering the edX platform code to the world for free empowers educators to experiment, innovate, and share new methods of teaching, and these lead to improvements in learning.

A “Particle Accelerator for Learning” and Research

To advance teaching and learning through research—one of the three pillars of its mission—edX makes available to member institutions the anonymized learner event data for the millions of learner clicks and page views captured on the platform. From this data package, edX member institutions can design and execute complex learning analytics research. In the 3½ years since edX formed, research projects using data from edX-hosted MOOCs have been presented at and/or published in leading education, technology, and learning science conferences and journals.

In addition to the data package, a tool in the edX platform called Insights provides course teams with daily data about learner activity, background information, and performance throughout the course. Using edX Insights, instructors can monitor how learners are doing in their courses and evaluate their instructional design and assessment choices. Anyone with administrative or staff access to a course can see enrollment activity, such as when and how many students are enrolled, and the geographic location and demographics of students. Learner activity metrics are presented for engagement with course content and accompanying videos, as well as the performance distribution of students across graded and ungraded assignment submissions. These capabilities provide instructors with real-time actionable feedback about the efficacy of their instructional materials and assessments.

For more complex analysis, content experiments—also known as A/B or split tests—can be set up for a course, enabling teachers and researchers to compare the effectiveness of course content by analyzing differences in learner performance. Multiple content experiments for multiple groups of students are possible in a single course, and the edX platform assigns learners to experiment groups in random, evenly distributed configurations.

MOOCs have facilitated a new field of learning science research based on big data. Agarwal describes the opportunity as a “particle accelerator for learning” (Stokes 2012). edX will continue to participate in and contribute to this growing research community, with platform capabilities that support research and analysis to advance teaching and learning both online and on campus.

The Future of Open

When MOOCs gained public awareness in 2012, prognosticators enthusiastically or apocalyptically declared that the courses signaled the downfall of institutions of higher education. It is certainly true that colleges and universities, particularly in the United States, are facing challenges to their enrollment, finances, and reputations at a level of intensity and pace that many have never experienced before. MOOCs are neither the lone cause of nor the sole solution to these difficulties.

edX and its university partners are working to leverage the technologies and methods that teaching and learning at scale afford in order to respond positively and productively to the changing education landscape. At the core of this response is a commitment to open access education that will serve lifelong learners around the world.

Opening educational access in the digital age depends on creating a more porous university where learners can have affordable, high-quality educational experiences throughout their lives from multiple institutions in a diversity of formats—online, on campus, and blended (Smith 2015).

The more opportunities learners have to achieve their educational goals, the greater capacity the world has to solve the challenges it faces.


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Goldberg C. 2001. Auditing classes at MIT, on the Web and free. New York Times, April 4. Online at on-the-web-and-free.html.

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Smith M. 2015. Keynote discussion with United States Chief Technology Officer. EdX Global Forum, November 9, Washington, DC. Online at

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About the Author:Nina B. Huntemann is director of academics and research, edX.