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Re-imagining the future of education at scale and for all: the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) joins edX

| September 1, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Sasha Norkin

Up until now, quality tertiary education – and, in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few in many parts of the world.

When colleges and universities report on their acceptance rates or applicant numbers, the flip side of that same story is the vast majority of learners who are not admitted, those who are not granted access to that educational experience.

Enter massive open online courses (MOOCs), increasing access to education for all. EdX, the non-profit online learning destination, founded by Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts1 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)2 in 2012, offers free courses to learners around the globe. We see online learning and MOOCs as the great democratiser, and believe that in the future, economics, social status, gender or geography will not determine a student’s access to education or opportunity for success.

Wits joins global learning community

With more than four million learners from almost every country in the world on edX, we are creating a global learning community. And, with more than 80 university and other institutional partners, we are offering this global learning community access to some of the best organisations, professors and educational material in the world. South African university, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), recently joined edX – a first-of-its-kind partnership between a major MOOC provider and a university based in Africa.

The total number of students pursuing higher education in Africa tripled between 1991 and 2006, yet public investment in education has remained the same.3 This increase in demand, along with the growing value of university degrees on the continent, means that the current high levels of educational expansion may still not be enough.4 The edX/Wits partnership will help bridge this gap by delivering education opportunities to students on the continent and beyond.

EdX is working in other African countries, too. In Rwanda, edX is busy with a pilot project in collaboration with Facebook, multinational telecommunications companies Airtel and Nokia and the Government of Rwanda that will provide students with free access to a collaborative online educational experience. SocialEDU5 will deliver high-quality, localised educational content on handheld devices and via a mobile app that is integrated with Facebook features.

Innovative education at scale

MOOCs and edX are examples of innovative education at scale. And, until recently, education has been slow to evolve. In many ways, the last big innovations in education were the printing press and textbooks.6 However, every other industry around us has experienced technological changes and improvements – and, at times, rapidly so – from transportation to healthcare to communications.

Now, with MOOCs, we are able to transform education through online technologies, and at edX we are working to re-imagine education. Lectures on the blackboard are no longer enough. We are incorporating and offering online exercises and online videos. MOOCs feature interactive virtual laboratories and gamification. Peer interaction and assessments, discussion forums, online grading and mobile applications are helping to open up education to learners around the world, for them to access it when and how they want.

Breaking the mould

MOOCs also allow us to engage in life-long learning and promote a continuous education system – one that doesn’t stop after four years of college or university. At edX, we offer many skills-based courses from both universities and organisations like Microsoft and the Linux Foundation to help learners improve their lives and advance their careers. With online learning, new skills are only a click away, and they have helped edX learners enhance their college applications, secure new jobs or earn promotions.

Not only does online learning help us promote learning beyond college, it helps us reimagine the traditional four-year campus experience. Over the last three years, working with edX institutional partners and collaborating with our global learning community, we’ve seen that many learners don’t fit a traditional mould. Global education at scale has unique challenges, and our global learning community has different needs that the fouryear college experience may not fully meet.

The Global Freshman Academy

Increasing access to high-quality education was the first step, but we knew there was more work to do to ultimately transform education. Thus, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU),7 we created the Global Freshman Academy (GFA), a first-of-its-kind online learning programme that offers a unique way to start or continue your undergraduate education and earn credit via MOOCs.

The GFA gives learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn first-year-level university credits by completing online courses from ASU on It truly transforms the admissions process by offering curriculum online for credit where students pay only once they have passed a course. Whereas the traditional college admissions process is closed, the GFA is truly open for all.

The GFA is for incoming college or university freshmen who want to experience tertiary-level courses or earn credits before they arrive on campus, returning students who are looking to get back on their university degree path in a more flexible and cost-effective way, or educators who are looking to supplement their classroom curriculum with university material to best prepare their students.

A personalised experience, available to all

Furthermore, as MOOCs continue to evolve, they are helping us bring education to a global scale, while also delivering a personalised experience. At edX, our first step was massive, and our next steps continue to be more personal, more focused on the learner. We are implementing new technologies to offer personalised learning experiences. From cohorts to teamwork to upgraded discussion forums, we are introducing new features and tools to help individual learners on their educational journey.

Our vision for the future is to continue to work with universities, institutions, faculty, researchers and students to innovate and transform education, to make it accessible to everyone. And our mission does not end online. Hand-in-hand with our university partners, we are dedicated not only to enhancing the online learning experience but also to the on-campus experience through blended classrooms and research.


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5. This remark was originally made by Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and MIT professor, during a TED talk. TED is a non-profit organisation founded in the US and devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). See/read Agarwal’s speech at:
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Category: Spring 2015

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