Top US universities to teach one billion students

Students pay thousands each year to study at MIT and Harvard. Now, these elite colleges will open their courses to everyone, for free, over the web. Could this learning revolution change the world?

Professor Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent most of his life sharing his knowledge with a select few of America’s brightest and most privileged students. Only the very top applicants get into MIT, which is rated among the best universities in the world – and fees run up to $40,000 per year.

But now, Agarwal is thinking bigger. Instead of teaching a handful in Massachusetts, he will, this autumn, embark on a new project: to teach one billion people, for free, anywhere in the world. MIT education is going online. What was for the elite, will now be for everyone.

Agarwal’s project is called edX, and is the result of a $60 million joint effort between MIT and the equally distinguished Harvard University. Agarwal has created a special technology platform which should allow him and other academics to deliver their lectures and teach their courses directly to the web, to anyone with a working internet connection.

Demand for the free online service is high. A trial course last year attracted more students than have passed through MIT in the last hundred years put together.

And Agarwal’s edX scheme is not unique. Other US universities like Stanford and Princeton are building their own online programmes. Meanwhile, learning for younger pupils is being revolutionised by organisations like TED-Ed and the Khan Academy, which have produced video lessons covering an ever-growing slice of the school curriculum.

Salman Khan, who started his Academy recording maths tutorials for his young cousins, thinks online learning is the future of education. Pupils can learn at their own pace, whether they live in a leafy US suburb or a crowded Mumbai slum.

Best of all, the rich child in the US and the street kid in India can not only learn the same thing – they can use the Khan Academy platform to help each other along. Special software means pupils can get extra help on tough subjects from fellow learners anywhere in the world.

Throwing snowballs

There are plenty of people who don’t think this sort of education can go far. There is so much missing from it: classrooms, face-to-face time with teachers, written homework. Online videos are no substitute for the real thing.

But online education has powerful advantages too: sharing teaching videos with a huge, interconnected community of learners is like rolling a snowball down a wintry mountainside. At first a few people learn. Then they help others, who go on to help even more people. Before you know it – you have an unstoppable educational avalanche.

You Decide

  1. What do you think are the most important lessons in life, and where do you learn them?
  2. Could you educate yourself without a teacher?


  1. In pairs or small groups, devise (and maybe film) your own educational video on any subject that you know about. It doesn’t necessarily have to be academic.
  2. A maths challenge: One person learns about Isaac Newton through an online video. In one week, they pass that knowledge to one other person. And each week after that, each person who knows about Newton, teaches one more person the secret. Quickly guess how many people will know about Newton after ten weeks. Then work out the real answer. How close did you come?

Some People Say...

“Traditional universities will soon be obsolete.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I already go to school all day. That’s quite enough education for me!
What if you could see the world’s top experts in science or art talking about their subjects? Or learn from some of the best educators in the world? That’s what online education schemes like edX hope to offer.
Nope. Not interested.
Fair enough. But you still might benefit from the spread of online education.
How so?
Lack of education is one of the biggest causes of poverty in the world. If more people can access good education, they will be able to do more profitable work, invent better businesses and products, build better systems and societies. If online education works, it could soon quickly make the world a much richer, happier place.

Word Watch

Harvard University
Harvard is America’s oldest university, and boasts no fewer than 75 Nobel Prize-winners among its present and former staff and students, and has educated eight US Presidents. It is a member of America’s elite Ivy League.
Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is a huge and thriving city in India, famous as the home to the Bollywood film industry. Although it is India’s commercial heart, and a magnet for the super-rich, it also contains areas where people live in extreme poverty.
Rolling a snowball
A more mathematical way to describe this snowball effect would be to say that the spread of education is exponential rather than linear. That is because the number of educated people in one year, for example, will be a multiple of the number of educated people the year before.

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