This autumn more than a million students are going to take part in an experiment that could re-invent the landscape of higher education.
Some of the biggest powerhouses in US higher education are offering online courses – testing how their expertise and scholarship can be brought to a global audience.
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have formed a $60m (£38m) alliance to launch edX, a platform to deliver courses online – with the modest ambition of “revolutionising education around the world”.
Sounding like a piece of secret military hardware, edX will provide online interactive courses which can be studied by anyone, anywhere, with no admission requirements and, at least at present, without charge.
The internet provides an unparalleled capacity to expand the reach – but it also raises far-reaching and thorny questions for the traditional model of a university.
“We’ve crossed the tipping point,” says Professor Agarwal. The courses being launched in the autumn, he anticipates, will have at least 500,000 students – and probably many more.
As an example of how courses might be delivered, the MITx prototype taught an electronics course using an interactive virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and video lectures.