Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley to partner with UT system for online classes

The UT System has recently announced its partnership with edX, a nonprofit online course provider founded in May by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The UT system is the fourth partner to become an “X University,” following Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley.

EdX is a unique learning platform. It provides a portal through which almost anybody in the world can participate in courses designed by college professors.  It was founded by Harvard and MIT as a means to research the way that students learn and how learning technologies can enhance the traditional college experience.  

Any university that is partnered with edX has the opportunity to add course content to the edX platform, which becomes accessible not only to students from other universities, but also to virtually any person with internet access.

Although the edX platform is designed to facilitate higher education for non-students, the UT system intends to incorporate the edX distance-learning program into their regular course work.  

“We will use the edX platform already in place to improve the way our courses are delivered across our campuses,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa at a UT System press conference, “offering a variety of technology-enhanced instruction, face-to-face classes, accelerated classes, hybrid classes and fully online classes.”

The edX platform will be made available to all nine UT Universities as well as its six health institutions, but it is unclear whether it will be implemented at every campus.

“At this current moment, the UT system is still exploring the technical details, and at this very moment, UTSA is not planning to switch platforms,” said UTSA Assistant Vice Provost of Distance Learning Sunay Palsole.

Currently, UTSA uses Blackboard for distance learning. However, some students and teachers argued that this system is ineffective.

“The best thing UTSA can do right now to improve the distance learning program is something that I understand is already set to happen this spring. That is, upgrading the Blackboard system,” said Marguerite Newcomb, an online course developer and UTSA lecturer.

“The system currently in place is woefully out of date and overworked. The next upgrade will allow for more interactive and fun technology add-ons that should make online learning even more effective.”

According to Newcomb, in order for online courses to be effective, they must be interactive enough to engage the modern student.

“People are evolving and this has never been more obvious than over the past 10 to 15 years with the huge increase in technology and educational technology,” she added. “Students are visual and need to be engaged. Technology-whether in an online or on-the-ground classroom-has the ability to make that happen.”

Even as distance-learning technology improves, it is inevitable that some students will remain more comfortable in a grounded learning environment. A common concern among traditional learners is that online courses sacrifice effectiveness for the sake of convenience and efficiency. However, online learning also has many advocates.

“You will also find students that think an online course is at least as effective as a classroom experience,” said Palsole. “Research shows that a well designed online course can lead to an excellent learning experience for learners who can learn from that modality.”

Though it is possible that UTSA may use the edX platform in the future, they will continue to use Blackboard for the time being. UTSA plans, however, to upgrade Blackboard in the near future, and they are also taking additional steps to improve the school’s distance learning program.

“UTSA is currently in the process of identifying courses that have the maximum potential to benefit the students by being online and once they have been identified, the plan is to collaborate with colleges and faculty to design courses to provide the best learning experience for the student and teaching experience for the faculty to ensure student success,” said Palsole.

UTSA students and distance learners can expect an upgrade in the current Blackboard system next semester and may anticipate the introduction of the edX platform in the future.