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edX, Google, and MOOC.org

A few days ago Google and edX announced a new collaboration: Google and edX will jointly develop MOOC.org, but it will be owned and operated by edX.The new site will host the Open edX learning platform to allow instructors at non-edX-affiliated universities to develop and publish courses online. While they haven’t announced pricing, if history is any guide, courses with small enrollments may be free to publish and consume, whereas courses with larger enrollments may require payment.

And Google agreed that any improvements it makes to the Open edX software in the process will be donated back to the open source code base so that ALL edX users can benefit.

I think this is a big deal for many reasons.

First, it means greatly expanded access for instructors. While everyone has been excited about “open education”, until now the only way to publish a high-visibility MOOC on edX or Coursera was via institutional agreement with your university. MOOC.org eliminates that barrier; in Anant Agarwal’s words (the president of edX), it’s like “YouTube for MOOCs.” (Though I think they should have gone with “YouMOOC”.) Just like YouTube, even if much of what gets published turns out to be mediocre, there will also likely be some real gems, since MOOC.org can give voice to amazing teachers who might otherwise have gone undiscovered outside their home institutions. Of course, institutions will need to come to agreement with their faculty on the relationship between faculty-authored content for their campus courses and the availability of that content in a MOOC or mini-MOOC, whether they have institutional agreements in place with edX or not.

Second, it means expanded mindshare for Open edX. Everyone knows MOOC tools are still relatively immature, but having so many more individuals use Open edX will greatly expand the “community of expertise” around it, which benefits both instructors at edX-affiliated schools and anyone else using MOOC.org. It’ll be like a community-based helpdesk.

Third, Google is highly regarded for their software engineering prowess (deservedly so, in my opinion), and they have agreed that any improvements they make to Open edX in the process of running MOOC.org will be donated back to the open source codebase that is also used by the edX universities, so that everyone can benefit. While no specific intentions have been announced, it’s exciting to speculate. For example, many instructors already use shared documents (Google Drive) or discussion groups (Google Groups) in their own courses; Google would be in a unique position to better integrate those services with the edX learning platform. Such improvements would also benefit universities not affiliated with edX but who are using edX internally, such as Stanford University.

Fourth, Google’s education folks have close ties to academia, and the company has a long history of supporting university education and research through both cash grants and collaborations. Maggie Johnson, Google’s Director of Education and University Relations, was a senior lecturer in computer science at Stanford for many years before moving to Google. Peter Norvig, their Director of Research, is a co-author of widely-used textbooks on Artificial Intelligence and was the co-instructor of the MOOC on that topic that “started the MOOC movement”. These folks understand how universities work, which I believe makes it more likely that Google can find ways to support universities’ use of MOOC technology as part of an overall instructional mission.

In short, Google’s commitment to collaborate with edX gives a boost of credibility to not-for-profit open education generally and to edX in particular that I believe is a win for everyone involved —not just the folks at Google and edX, but the soon-to-be-thousands of instructors and millions of students who will be the primary beneficiaries of this technology.

Photo of Armando FoxArmando Fox (fox@cs.berkeley.edu) is a Professor-in-Residence in the EECS Department at UC Berkeley and a co-founder of the UC Berkeley RAD Lab. As of Fall 2012, he has been named half-time Academic Director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education, helping UC Berkeley to build an infrastructure that will support the campus`s many online education initiatives.