Bursting the Education Bubble: MIT and Harvard’s edX Is Just the Beginning

If the higher-education bubble bursts, it may well start in Boston. That would be fitting, given how many universities, students, and education-focused tech innovators we have here in the Northeast.

Yes, I know the premise of such a bubble is controversial. But anyone dealing with the skyrocketing costs of college tuition, coupled with the high rates of unemployment (and under-employment) for recent college grads, has to at least question whether it’s all worth it—and whether our educational system is sustainable in the long run.

We’ll soon find out. Harvard University and MIT announced today they are starting a $60 million joint nonprofit organization, called edX, to provide free online courses from both schools and do large-scale research on how students learn on the Web. EdX joins the ranks of related efforts from Stanford, Princeton, U. Penn, and Michigan—which have a joint startup called Coursera—as well as other online learning projects like Udacity, from former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun; the Minerva Project, from former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson; and the Khan Academy, from MIT and Harvard alum Salman Khan.

These companies and projects hold the promise of providing access to top-tier university classes to millions of people around the world. They also threaten to disrupt the economic pillars of traditional university tuitions and endowments, at least eventually. That’s what happens when you make stuff cheap or free that used to cost a lot (see music, movies, books, advertising, good writing, etc.).

None of this is really new, of course. Colleges have offered online courses for years, and a couple of joint Web ventures from top universities failed in the early-to-mid-2000s, as the New York Times points out. This time the outcome could be different, however, as a new generation of students has grown up on Web videos, social networks, and collaborative interfaces. And the technologies have become much better, more reliable, and more efficient to implement.

Those trends are pushing a number of Boston-area entrepreneurs to make their mark on the education system. Among the relevant efforts are Boundless Learning, a startup that provides free online textbooks and other educational content to college students (much to the chagrin of big textbook publishers); peerTransfer, which handles online tuition payments by international students for lower fees; EverTrue, which is reinventing college alumni relations for the mobile/social era; TenMarks, which sells Web-based math programs for K-12; and Abroad101, which runs a peer-reviewed database of study abroad programs (my colleague Erin Kutz wrote about it this week). It will be interesting to watch all of their disruptive progress in parallel with efforts from Harvard, MIT, and other schools.

Meanwhile, just a few days ago, Startup Weekend EDU took place in Boston, with teams of hungry entrepreneurs gathering for a 54-hour crash course in education startup design. The result: a number of promising ideas, including PeerMookie, which is aimed at connecting students online for one-on-one tutoring and problem-solving.

Collaborative systems like that—especially if they can support rich and nuanced communication—would seem to be crucial for the online distance-learning world of tomorrow. You might be able to supplant the experience of being in the same room as the professor, or buying an expensive textbook, but you won’t be able to do without what is arguably the most important part of the educational process: daily interactions with your peers.

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