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December 12, 2012

Elite colleges take to web

Georgetown University is joining one of the most prominent ventures in online higher education, a Web platform known as edX that provides courses from elite schools to a global audience for free.

The addition of Georgetown to edX marks the latest development in a fast-growing movement that aspires to connect the ivory tower to the world.

Millions of people have signed up this year on Web sites for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which offer self-paced learning through video lectures, tests, homework, discussion boards and other digital interfaces. Advocates say MOOCs will democratize higher education and spark a teaching revolution on campuses. Skeptics call it little more than brand promotion.

EdX, which Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched in May, hosts MOOCs from those schools and the University of California at Berkeley. The University of Texas system joined in October and Wellesley College last week. Like Georgetown, they plan to add MOOCs to edX next year.

Another MOOC platform, Coursera, which launched in April, hosts classes from Johns Hopkins University, the universities of Maryland and Virginia, and 30 other major U.S. and foreign institutions.

For Georgetown, the nation's oldest Catholic university, securing an agreement to work with the site led by MIT and Harvard was a major coup. Two hundred colleges and universities have approached edX about possible partnerships. But the site's leadership has been extremely selective.

"We would like to have the best courses from the best professors from the best universities," edX President Anant Agarwal said. "Georgetown certainly brings that."

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who helped oversee an accreditation review of Harvard a few years ago, said he and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust began discussing MOOC ventures over the summer. DeGioia said it became clear that it would be possible to work with edX as he met with Agarwal at the Web site's headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., in mid-September.

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