Op-Ed: Freshman Year Can Be Free Online For Anyone

[Originally published in The Baltimore Sun]

By James M. Murphy

The American system of higher education is unparalleled. Our public and private institutions — including many right here in Baltimore— offer world-class opportunities in the sciences, humanities and arts, and prepare students for vibrant intellectual and professional lives. However, the benefits of this system are unequally distributed. A college education is unaffordable for many Americans, and its traditionally residential nature creates barriers for adult and non-traditional students. In fact, students previously considered non-traditional are now the norm.

Celebrating its one-year anniversary this August, the philanthropy Modern States Education Alliance harnesses online education to shatter these economic and geographic obstacles. [Disclosure: IBL Education developed the Modern States Open edX platform and the courses]

Students of any age or economic background can utilize Modern States’ catalog of free online freshman-level college classes taught with state-of-the-art technology by professors from some of America’s most renowned universities including Johns Hopkins where I am a member of the math faculty. I teach four Modern States courses, each designed to help students pass a CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exam offered through the College Board. A passing score on a CLEP exam translates to college credit at thousands of colleges and universities, including University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Towson University, Community College of Baltimore County, Loyola University of Maryland, Mount Saint Mary’s University and many others in the Mid-Atlantic.

CLEP exams cost $87, substantially less than the thousands of dollars it costs to take an on-campus math class. Moreover, Modern States is paying the exam fee for the first 10,000 students to take a course and corresponding CLEP. These courses are compact, self-contained versions of typical introductory college math classes, and they allow students to refine and develop their skills in mathematics at no cost.

As with my on-campus classes, my Modern States classes begin with fundamentals, then follow the natural progression of the material as it would be taught in the classroom. I take the time to provide detail when working out problems, explaining the crucial steps that are imperative for learning. Providing clear insights is critical in the online format and ensures my contribution as the lecturer and architect for this course is far more valuable than a textbook alone.

My online students are diverse. Some are typical college-age and testing out of introductory courses as a means to make college more affordable. Many are working adults who need an online platform instead of the traditional residential experience. Others are returning veterans, looking to bring themselves up to speed in college mathematics before returning to campus. My Modern States courses democratize education by allowing any student to learn and grow as a student of mathematics, regardless of age, geography or financial means.

The Modern States online courses are not designed to replace the traditional American college experience but to complement it and increase its accessibility. By helping students move past remedial courses through online study and earn credit through the CLEP exam, my Modern States courses provide an on-ramp to college. I believe that online content can never replace the real, human interaction between teacher and pupil, especially in advanced courses and in mentorship. However, I also believe online courses can open the door to higher education for the millions of Americans who believe it is out of reach.

Education changes lives, and the educational opportunities in America are second to none. It is for this reason that new opportunities to democratize education should be seized with both hands.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Go to www.modernstates.org. All you need is an internet connection and the desire to learn.

James M. Murphy (jmurphy@math.jhu.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow within the Department of Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University.

HarvardX Launches Three New CS50 Courses, with Prof. Malan as a Lead Instructor

HarvardX has created three new, free CS50 courses, which will start on July 1 at the edX.org portal: Web Programming with Python and JavaScript, Introduction to Game Development, and Mobile App Development with React Native.

These courses follow the success of “Introduction to Computer Science from Harvard”, better known as CS50, the largest course on Harvard campus and edX.org, with more than 1 million learners worldwide.

Particularly interesting is the 13-week course on React for mobile apps, a popular framework chosen by Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb and SoundCloud as their preferred choice for development.

Harvard University’s Professor David J. Malan, a star teaching online computer science, will be the lead instructor in the three courses. He is the author of the entire series of CS50, which now includes seven courses.

Jupyter-Based Courses in Open edX: Authoring and Grading with Notebooks

Prof. Lorena Barba, from GW, presented on May 30 at the Open edX Conference, along with Miguel Amigot II, CTO at IBL Education, two software extensions (XBlocks) to better integrate Jupyter into the Open edX platform:

  1. Jupyter Notebook Viewer XBlock—from any public Jupyter Notebook (e.g., in a public repo on GitHub), pull content into a course learning sequence using only the URL, and optional start and end marks (any string from the first cell to include, and the first cell to exclude).This allows course authors to develop their course content as Jupyter Notebooks, and to build learning sequences reusing that content, without duplication. It also has the added benefit that the development of the material can be hosted on a version-controlled repository. (Open edX, itself, doesn’t provide version control of course content.)[See IBL’s post about the XBlock, and the code repository—the XBlock is open source under a BSD3 license.]
  2. Graded Jupyter Notebook XBlock—create an assignment using the nbgrader Jupyter extension, then insert a graded sub-section in Open edX that will deliver this assignment (as a download), auto-grade the student’s uploaded solution, and record the student’s score in the gradebook.The XBlock instantiates a Docker container with all the required dependencies, runs nbgrader on the student-uploaded notebook, and displays immediate feedback to the student in the form of a score table.[See IBL’s post, and the code repository—the XBlock is open source under BSD3.]

Prof. Barba has been teaching with Jupyter for the last five years. Her first open teaching module using Jupyter was “CFD Python”, released in July 2013. In 2014, Barba developed and taught the first massive open online course (MOOC) at the George Washington University: “Practical Numerical Methods with Python.” The course was written entirely as Jupyter Notebooks, and it was self-hosted on a custom Open edX site (where it amassed more than 8000 users over 3 years).

Jupyter is a set of open-source tools for interactive and exploratory computing. At the center of them is the Jupyter Notebook, a document format for writing narratives that interleave multi-media content with executable code, using any of a set of available languages (of which Python is the most popular).

The work presented at the conference is the brainchild of Prof. Lorena Barba, implemented by her tech partners at IBL Education.

Video Talk: Zvi Galil Shared Insights on Georgia Tech’s Online CS Master’s

Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in computer science –OMSCS for short– continues its successful path, with 6,365 enrolled at the start of the Spring 2018 semester.

This first-of-its-kind program, launched in January 2014, has attracted 10,178 unique enrollments since the launch. Zvi Galil, Dean of Georgia Institute of Technology, disclosed these data during his talk at the 2018 Open edX Conference in Montreal, Canada.

During his keynote, Mr. Galil shared lessons learned running the program which was described by Harvard University researchers as “the first rigorous evidence showing an online degree program can increase educational attainment”.

The program, priced at $6,600, has also paved the way for a number of similar, MOOC-based MS programs.

Zvi Galil’s talk described the OMSCS program, how it came about, its first four years, and what Georgia Tech has learned from the OMSCS experience.

Video of the talk.

NVIDIA Launches its Deep Learning Institute on the Open edX Platform to Train Engineers

The NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute (DLI) launched this week during its annual GTC conference in San Jose, California, a deeply integrated, distributed and built-to-scale Open edX ecosystem with custom labs for certified instructor-led training and self-paced courses.

The first course, Fundamentals of Deep Learning for Computer Vision, was opened on Sunday 25 during an eight hour, face-to-face training session for three hundred learners who used the edX code-based platform for assessments, exercises and laboratories while interacting in the room with peers and teacher assistants.

NVIDIA engineer and educator Mike Mendelson taught, along with two dozen assistants, this hands-on workshop, developed with the goal of providing the basics of deep learning by training and deploying neural networks.

A second course, Fundamentals of Accelerated Computing with CUDA C/C++, was also offered during the same day. Students learned, practiced and got certified on CUDA’s tools and techniques to accelerate CPU-only applications to run on massively parallel GPUs.

This uniquely blended model was praised by participants, mostly engineers, as a highly effective and engaging method of training. NVIDIA partnered with IBL Education to develop, scale and maintain the platform.

The two courses remained open as part of NVIDIA’s Deep Learning Institute’s catalog. In the following weeks, it will be enhanced with video lectures and other learning resources for tens of courses.

The Deep Learning Institute (DLI) currently offers hands-on training in deep learning and accelerated computing self-paced courses and instructor-led workshops designed to solve real-world problems.

DLI provides learners with a fully configured, GPU-accelerated workstation in the cloud, complete with software tools, neural networks, and datasets.

Update from our CTO, Miguel Amigot, one week after its release:

December 2017 Newsletter on Learning Innovation


• Oracle will open in early January a $43 million building that will house an innovative, free public high school with 550 students, the sleek Design Tech High School, known as d.teach. “Nobody has done anything like this before,” said Colleen Cassity, the executive director of the Oracle Education Foundation.

• Cengage Learning has joined the open educational resources (OER) movement and announced OpenNow, a suite of digital products for general education courses. Fees start at $25 per student per course, a price point in line with Lumen Learning, which has also developed proprietary OER courseware. Available courses now include psychology, American government and sociology.

• Most higher education CIOs say their organizations’ business models will change as a result of the digital transformation. Top tech areas for new spending will include cybersecurity, ERP, Analytics, ERP, CRM, LMS, digital marketing and cloud services.

Saint Michael’s College, a private institution in Vermont, has created new “pop-up”, short-term courses about timely issues not accommodated in the traditional curriculum and offered for 0-1 credits, pass or fail. Other institutions are implementing the pop-up approach, including Bennington College (VT) and Stanford University (CA).

• Cornell Tech, a graduate school at Cornell University, inaugurated the Tata Innovation Center, after this IT services firm contributed $50 million to help the school invest in technology research and expand K-12 digital literacy programs in New York City.

Noodle Partners, one of the newer players to step into the online program manager (OPM) space, got a boost attracting $14 million in funding. Its CEO John Katzman started 2U, one of the companies, along with Academic Partnerships, Bisk, Pearson Embanet and Wiley Education Services that today control half of the OPM market, which is estimated at around $1.1 billion. Noodle Partners has signed on nearly a dozen universities like American, Tulane and New York University.

Forbes has made a list of young entrepreneurs with its list of 2018 “30 Under 30”. There is a lot of innovation on what they are doing.

VitalSource, dedicated to offering tools to create digital courses and materials, has acquired the corporate LMS Intrepid Learning, which claims to serve 20 million users globally.

View this newsletter on the web

The Learning Times monthly newsletter is a topic-curated email report compiled by Michael Amigot, Founder at IBL Education, a company specialized in Open edX technology and course production. If you enjoy what you read please consider forwarding it. Click here to subscribe.

The Learning Times Newsletter #3 – November 2017
The Learning Times Newsletter #2 – October 2017
The Learning Times Newsletter #1 – September 2017


A Reviewed Course to Learn the Fundamentals of Creating edX Courses

edX’s training team has launched a new version of its StudioX course, intended to teach the fundamentals of creating courses on the edX platform.

“StudioX: Creating a Course with edX Studio” introduces to Studio, edX’s course-authoring tool, and is ideal for course authors and course teams interested in successfully creating a course and provide students a great experience.

Through activities and hands-on learning, this 4-week course walks the learner through the course development process directly in Studio.

In addition, edX has launched the version 2.11 of the edX mobile app for Android and iOS. This release includes some interesting improvements, such as information about video size, assignment due dates and initial support for Spanish.

'Online Learning Design Is Now a Refined Art'

“Online learning design is now a refined art, and universities must show they can produce high-quality courses at a reasonable cost,” writes in Times of Higher Education Geoff Webster, Managing Director at CEG Digital, the blended learning division of Cambridge Education Group.

  • “To deliver the level of quality that both students and academics expect, and is provided by leading online programmes today, universities must be willing to invest substantial resources in development.”
  • Blended learning has a higher rate of student satisfaction, outcomes and retention, but requires institutional capability and flexibility to deliver a high-quality face-to-face experience within the context of an online learning programme.
  • Coming technological advances, such as adaptive content provision and virtual and augmented experiences will have their place in certain subject areas, but will add their own development and delivery overheads. As an institution invests in online, focusing in-house IT departments on what may start out as a small number of students can be a real challenge. 
  • Fortunately the twin engines of growth – domestic and international demand – should provide a sufficient body of students, with a breadth of subjects, levels and entry requirements.
  • The key strategic questions are: how quickly can an institution get to market, can it produce and deliver programmes of the right quality and with the right cost base, and are these investments sustainable in the long term? Student expectations, learning design, delivery modes, technology choices and recruitment should be top of mind for vice-chancellors. 



Google Will Donate $1 Billion to Education and Professional Training Non Profits

Google will commit $1 billion over the next five years to nonprofits in education and professional training through its charitable arm, Google.org.

CEO Sundar Pichai announced a new program at an event this week in Pittsburgh, PAGrow with Googleaimed at training American workers for high-tech jobs and helping build businesses.

“At Google, our mission is to make sure that information serves everyone, not just a few,” Pichai explained in the address. “A child in a school here in Pittsburgh can access the same information on Google as a professor at Carnegie Mellon. In the end, the internet is a powerful equalizer, capable of propelling new ideas and people forward.”

Grow With Google will create an online destination for job seekers to get training and professional certificates and for businesses to improve their web services.

Google said it was donating $10 million to Goodwill Industries, for example, for digital job training programs. Company employees also will volunteer one million hours at those nonprofits.


According to The New York Times, much like a political campaign, Google will go on the road to spread the message about its new program, it said. In the coming months, company officials will make stops in Indianapolis; Oklahoma City; Lansing, Mich.; and Savannah, Ga.

Google is not the only big tech company that has gone on a charm offensive in recent months. Under fire from President Trump for producing most of its devices in China, Apple announced in May that it was creating a $1 billion fund to invest in advanced manufacturing in the United States. Amazon, another frequent target of Mr. Trump, said in January that it was planning to hire 100,000 new employees over the next 18 months.

Spain's 2017 Open edX Meetup Will Take Place This Thursday, October 5

The third Open edX Meetup in Spain – the 2017 edition – will take place this Thursday, October 5 in Madrid. The event, scheduled at 7pm, is free and open to anyone interested in education technology and pedagogy. There is a limit of attendance to 120 people.

The two speakers will be Michael Amigot, Founder at IBL Studios & IBL Open edX in New York, and Javier Calvo, CEO at Campus FP, a leading vocational training organization in Spain and a recent Open edX adopter.

Local leaders in education at the university, industry and government level will attend the event with the goal of sharing knowledge and networking with attendants.

Talks, in Spanish, will be recorded and live streamed. A Spanish wine will be served at the end of the event.

All of the details are featured in the official page of this meetup.

Spain’s Open edX community has attracted so far 350 members. The main Open edX projects in Spain have been presented in these meetups.

UPDATE: Here is the video stream of the event

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