EdX: Free Education for the Masses


” … [T]here are two certainty’s in life. One — don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f#*&%$ education that you could’ve got for a dollar-fifty in late chahhhges at the public library.” –Will Hunting

Edx & The Changing Landscape of Education

These days rising tuition costs, student loan payments, and reduced employment prospects in a down economy await the thousands of newly-tasseled American high school graduates considering whether or not to pursue a traditional path towards secondary education. However, some forward thinking colleges and universities have mobilized in order to spearhead a more robust non-traditional educational opportunity in the form of edX (https://www.edx.org): a free catalogue of online college courses offered by a network of prestigious schools such as MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley. The major draws of edX for potential students are the name-brand association to top tier schools offering the courses, the certificates awarded after course completion (which are also free), and- of course- the knowledge and training itself (Did I mention the whole thing is free??).

Since MIT and Harvard University launched the massive open online course (MOOC) platform in May of 2012, twenty-six other schools have joined the coalition, and that number is growing. The course lineup early on included a tech-heavy grouping of computer programming classes and a scattering of physical science introductions. Recently, however, these have expanded to include such diverse subjects as ethics, history and other humanities, law, literature, philosophy, and even a class on music in the 20th century (Ironically, this course is not offered by The Berklee School of Music, which has joined the coalition but not yet set forth any classes. Berklee’s edX page encourages visitors to “Check back soon!”).

Street-smart skeptic:

“Okay buddy- what’s the rub, the trade-off, catch, and/or scam?”

There isn’t one.

“There’s gotta be one!”


“… Nice.”

In order to ascertain whether or not edX was in fact some sort of elaborate gimmick, I enrolled in a course myself (CS50x- an introductory computer programming course offered by Harvard University). I entered my information and waited for the obligatory: “Thanks for enrolling in our free class! Now if you’ll just enter your credit card information…” but it never came. I followed the lectures, completed the assignments, took the quizzes and nary a request for the green stuff did I encounter. There didn’t seem to be any “Nigerian princes” running this operation. Finally, the day came when I was supposed to receive my “Certificate of Mastery.”

Ahh, I thought. Here it comes: ‘Pay no attention to the billing invoice behind the curtain!!’

But, no! My trusty new partner in continuing education came through once again, and upon course completion emailed me a printable certificate with my very own name and very own verification code on it (which is stored in edX’s very own database) showing off my new programming cred for friends and family to behold with silent envy.

Free College Courses for the Masses

So, what do course proprietors get out of the arrangement? Edx president Anant Agarwal has stated that, “Everybody should have access to a high-quality education… We partner with some of the world’s best universities to offer courses to learners all over the world.”1 But, are the organization’s aims truly altruistic? This free online initiative may signal a coup which will grant the upper-hand to brick-and-mortar institutions that have been forced to implement changes to their curricula, in order to stay competitive with (exclusive) online rivals. Whether that is an intended consequence of the edX revolution, or not, is open for debate. Officially, the only ulterior motive that edX has admitted to for offering up free content- that costs traditional college students as well as distance learners at online schools thousands of dollars per year- are academic in nature. Researchers analyze how students make use of the uploaded lecture videos, quizzes, discussion forums and other materials, determining criteria such as the amount of time spent on each, then use the results to improve the overall educational model. Says Agarwal, “There [are] online learning assistance and platforms such as edX, but at the same time the same technologies can also be used to improve campus education. The blended models of learning… can dramatically improve campus education as well. I see online learning as a rising tide that will lift all boats. I think everything will be better.”2

It’s easy to hop on the edX bandwagon based on the organization’s conduct so far- as long as it stays free- but what will be the ramifications for traditional colleges and universities who opt out of the edX consortium? Public sentiment has begun to shift in recent years, as more and more people question the value of a traditionally aquired secondary education, in light of rising costs coupled with falling employment prospects. An analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press in 2011 found that nearly 54% of college graduates under age 25 were unemployed.

For years high school guidance counselors have dissuaded students who have expressed an interest in notoriously unemployable majors (re: “A bachelor’s in Elizabethan Poetry may make you a shoe-in for the court heckler position at Ren Fest, Earl, but your prospects for employment decrease rapidly once you step foot out of Good King Henry’s Magical Realm.”), but in the global economy of the new millennium, even academic pursuits that were once considered to be safe bets for securing lucrative jobs after graduation have failed to yield prosperous employment for students post-graduation. Remember how Mom and Dad couldn’t stop nagging you about the vital role computer literacy would play in determining your future employment prospects? A 2012 study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce showed that science and technology majors suffer from an unemployment rate that supersedes the national average (7.6% at the time of the study). This means that tech-geeks and literary-snobs alike have been anxiously checking their voice mails for return-calls from the Staples HR department.3

This is not to say that computer literacy is not important to securing gainful employment in the modern, technological world. However, is it possible that- much like the ability to read and write- basic competence with computers and mass consumer technology is now something that companies simply expect of potential employees, regardless of other- more specific- training? If so, guidance counselor’s must now expand their admonitions to include a wider field (re: “Your degree in Computer Programming might make you a hit with Skyrim’s modding community, Earl, but your prospects for gainful employment are sharply reduced once you step foot outside of your Mom’s basement.”).

Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake

In a globally equalized job market, a college degree that is relevant to growing sectors of industry is no longer a sure-fire path to success in the professional world. The lure for companies to improve their bottom lines by outsourcing jobs to developing nations with cheap labor is too strong. Why pay an American salary when you can pay pennies on the dollar for the same work in India? Ironically, our nation’s financial success has left American professionals at a disadvantage to those of other countries with a lower cost of living.

The arguments made by lawmakers for globalization are often justified by invoking American ingenuity- that we may somehow perpetually sustain ourselves through innovation in our respective fields. But not everyone can build a better mousetrap. In any case, one thing is absolutely clear: Education is even more crucial now than it has been in times past. The landscape for attaining it is merely changing. Also, the brick-and-mortar institutions that have joined edX have shown a willingness to remove the financial risks involved with “investing” in education, and distilled the pure essence of learning for learning’s sake as a means of personal enrichment, and as a vehicle to improve the overall human condition. Colleges and universities who opt-out of participating in such a noble endeavor may find themselves under criticism in the near future.


While educational materials have long been accessible from many colleges and universities for free under the “open course-ware” moniker, edX has galvanized the concept by implementing dynamic interaction, grading, and certification services into the mix in an unprecedented way. Furthermore, students are encouraged to ask and answer questions about course materials within community discussion forums, which are maintained by teaching staff for each class offered by edX. In this way, a class with a limited faculty may accept more enrollees than would traditionally be acceptable. Says Anant, about the first class ever taught on edX in May of 2012: “… [W]e were really concerned about the large number of students enrolled. We had 154,000 students… [B]ut through our online discussion boards, we saw the students answering each other’s questions. There were no repeat questions because once someone asked a question everybody could see the response. In that way, we were able to serve 154,000 students with a very small staff…”(re: 1)


  1. Dickie, M. Edx president predicts an online learning transformation [Internet]. Financial Times; 2013 Jun 30, [cited 2013 Oct 2]. Available from: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/102b69ec-dce4-11e2-9700-00144feab7de.html#axzz2XnaozQ8x
  2. Petrilla, M. Q&A: Anant Agarwal, edX’s president and first professor [Internet]. SmartPlanet; 2013 Sep 3, [cited 2013 Oct 2]. Available from: http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/q-a-anant-agarwal-edxs-president-and-first-professor/8713
  3. Nemko, M. Enrolling at You U: An Alternative to Going Back to School [Internet]. U.S. News (Money); 2013 Jul 07 [cited 2013 Oct 2]. Available from: http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2013/07/15/enrolling-at-you-u-an-alternative-to-going-back-to-school

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