Berkeley Joins Harvard, MIT Offering Free Online Classes

The University of California Berkeley will join Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in offering free interactive online classes to students around the world.

EdX, as the nonprofit venture is known, was announced in December 2011 as an MIT experiment called MITx, an online program of courses with homework, exams and discussion forums. Harvard joined the venture in May and faculty from the three institutions will offer a total of seven classes this fall, open to anyone with Internet access, according to a statement today.

The nonprofit is providing free and affordable classes as young student-loan borrowers in the U.S. struggle to keep up with rising tuition costs. The nation’s outstanding educational debt reached about $1 trillion earlier this year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“We are deeply committed to public education and to making courses available at the lowest costs possible,” Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley’s chancellor, said in a telephone interview.

Harvard and MIT’s focus on research and the nonprofit model attracted Berkeley, Birgeneau said.

More than 120 universities have expressed interest in joining the EdX partnership, Anant Agarwal, the nonprofit’s president, said in a telephone interview yesterday. The group is cautious about expanding too quickly and has yet to determine a timeline for bringing in new partners, he said.

Gates Foundation

While EdX will initially offer class certificates free of charge this fall, it will eventually introduce charges to cover costs, Agarwal said. Fees will probably be about $100 per certificate and may be reduced in lower-income countries.

Harvard and MIT, both based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have each pledged $30 million to the project. Berkeley, which has cash-flow issues because of California budget cuts, won’t contribute funds, Birgeneau said.

Additional funding comes from newly announced donations by MIT alumnus Philippe Laffont, founder and chief investment officer of Coatue Management LLC, and Harvard alumnus Jonathan Grayer, former chairman and CEO of Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan Inc. and a founder of Weld North LLC. Agarwal declined to disclose the amounts.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also contributed $1 million to fund an experimental “flipped” classroom, which will pair in-classroom interaction at a community college with edX lectures and will target lower-income students.

Coursera Inc., a start-up founded by two Standford University professors last year, also offers free online classes from prestigious schools. The four-university forum announced earlier this month that it will add 12 new partners, including schools like Duke University, the University of Virginia and The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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