The Impact of Open Source: MIT’s EdX

Anything that is open source “is intended to be freely shared and can be improved upon and redistributed to others” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2012, p. 141). While many people are familiar with open source products such as the operating system Linux or the “so widely adopted” CMS Moodle (p.142), but OpenCourses, or Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCS) present open access to universities and have the potential to democratize education. One such exemplar is MIT and Harvard’s edX.


EdX was founded by MIT and Harvard as a consortium that currently has 28 contributing institutions from the U.S., France, Korea, Japan, Australia, China, India, Germany, Hong Kong, and Sweden (edX, 2013). In edX’s own words, “we’re bringing the best of higher education to students around the world. EdX offers MOOCs and interactive online classes in subjects including law, history, science, engineering, business, social sciences, computer science, public health, and artificial intelligence (AI)” (edX, 2013). As of this writing, there are 57 total courses (new, current, and past) available.


On average, the typical MOOC enrolls around 50,000 students  (Jordan, 2013), and has a completion rate of about 10% (Jordan, 2013; Simonite, 2013). While interpreting results, shortcomings, or the effectiveness of MOOCs can be debated ad nauseam as to why they may not be living up to the hype (Zemsky and Massy, 2004), the purpose of this post is to determine whether or not a typical edX course adheres to good instructional design and distance learning principles in its planning, design, and subsequent development, elements noted by Dr. Piskurich (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.). To do so, I registered in both the DemoX Demo Course which is the CMS orientation module, as well as CB22x The Ancient Greek Hero from Harvard.


The CMS orientation module, DemoX Demo, is designed to teach the learner how to navigate the environment and provides a generic overview of what a course may look like. In DemoX, a sample course, divided into 3 weeks, with typical course elements such as videos, reading materials, and assessment questions are all present. The platform itself benefits from an excellent functional interactivity in its design (Chou, 2003), and a very modern and effective color schema and visual layout (Paper Leaf, 2010; Paper Leaf, 2012), succeeding in visual literacy design (Metros, 2008). 

Learning objects (i.e. videos) that I was able to access in the DemoX Demo and CB22x The Ancient Greek Hero all followed production guidelines described by Hartsell and Yuen (2006) specifically for distance learners. Access is redundant (Beldarrain, 2006), and close captions are provided in addition to the ability to slow down the pace of the video. These are all explicit considerations of distance learners (FCC, n.d.; Tabbers, Martens, and van Merriënboer, 2001). Thus, the CMS and media within typically qualify as well designed learning objects for distance learners (Smith Nash, 2005), and provide a genuine multimodal learning experience (Mayer, 2007). Activities were limited to discussion forums, multiple choice assessments, and close reading exercises, but matched directly to learning goals as described in the syllabus.


The planning of the course is evident, and divided into either weeks (for DemoX Demo) or hours (for Hero X). A detailed syllabus is provided that explains, hour by hour, the goals for that particular lesson, and includes a section on assessment and evaluation. As Dr. Piskurich noted in his podcast, the syllabus is tantamount to an instructional design of the course (Laureate Education Inc., n.d.). Detailed information regarding the course is also provided in the sections labeled “course info”, “advice for participants”, and “courseware” (edX, 2013).


The course designers have clearly followed guidelines of instructional design, learning object design, and distance learning theory. The CMS is designed to “keep students informed constantly” (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 135), and detailed instructions along with clear requirements for each week or session are stated each session and in multiple locations (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 134). The target audience of learners is adults, and the forums are designed so that they “can learn as much or more from each other as from the instructor” (p. 136). In terms of theory, this is a clear sign of andragogy with “participatory learning” (p. 50), a “clear course descriptions, learning objectives, resources, and timelines for events” (p. 51).

In a big picture view, the current state of edX and its courses seems to fit the 3rd Cycle definition that Zemsky and Massy (2004) that include sophisticated electronic learning objects. EdX has strong foundations, although the impact of its mission to democratize education is one that has yet to be felt. While the penetration of distance learning is incredible for continuing education (Allen, Seaman, and Garret, 2007), the positive effects career wise or financially are inconclusive (Seibold, 2007). There are no degrees awarded from edX, and the FAQ section clearly states “X Universities do not currently offer formal academic credit for edX coursework and do not certify that MOOC students have met the same requirements as matriculated students taking the original course on which the MOOC is based” (edX, 2013).


Ultimately, as time passes and society changes, there will be more definitive conclusions on the impact of Open Courses. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see such initiatives being taken by educational leaders. As stated in the third part of Holmberg’s theory of guided didactic conversation, “society benefits from distance education…from the liberal study opportunities it affords individual learners, and, …, from the professional/occupational training it provides” (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 49).

All images are from edX’s website (


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