Will edX's decision to release its full source code attract more contributors to the Harvard/MIT-backed massive open online course platform?

Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

June 5, 2013

3 Min Read

 8 MOOCs Transforming Education

8 MOOCs Transforming Education

8 MOOCs Transforming Education(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

EdX, the massive open online course (MOOC) consortium started by MIT and Harvard, has released its full source code, a decision the backers hope will accelerate advances to the platform.

"We want contributors," said Rob Rubin, edX's VP of engineering. "We'd welcome any company's contributions and any peoples' use of the edX platform. We're in the very early days in the development of the technology to support learning and research about learning. Let's all contribute to the open-source effort to be able to rapidly evolve that for the benefits of the student."

Much of the code was available previously. EdX had announced the open source of its core architecture, XBlock, in March. Stanford already has two courses hosted on edX code. 10gen, which manages the MongoDB open source database tool, developed training courses with edX source code.

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Justin Reich, an education technology researcher who last week joined HarvardX, Harvard's edX group, said in an email that he had done so in part because of edX's open-source direction.

"Borrowing from SJ Klein, we have to decide as a society whether learning resources are commodities to be bought and sold or the public infrastructure of our culture," said Reich. "The open sourcing of edX, supported by some of the world's leading universities, is a great step towards building a public infrastructure for learning online."

EdX had said it would release its source code in the fourth quarter of 2013 or the first quarter of 2014. Instead, it released the code on Saturday and announced the release Wednesday.

Rob Rubin

Rob Rubin

Rob Rubin
EdX VP of Engineering

Rubin said the release moved up because Stanford, The University of California at Berkeley and other members of the X Consortium, the schools that make up edX's membership, all wanted to contribute code. Rubin said edX made the decision in April to push for June 1.

"It took every bit of the six weeks to get ready," he said. The primary challenges were the code edit process and security checks. EdX did an internal security audit, hiring two security companies to help with the audit.

The full release includes code from several edX members. Stanford contributed code for several features, including real-time chat, and some installation scripts. Berkeley has contributed forum software and a software-as-a-service automated grading system. The University of Queensland in Australia also contributed code. EdX said 10gen and the Concord Consortium, an education technology research group, also were making contributions.

EdX asked specifically for contributions for the EdX Open Response Assessor and grading application programming interfaces, its XBlock architecture, and for internationalization.

"We're trying to make this as pluggable as we can, to make a new ecosystem around [the platform]," said James Tauber, EdX's open source community manager.

Rubin said edX has not worked out how it will protect against code drift, or whether someone will serve a "benevolent dictator for life" role that Linus Torvalds has played for Linux. He noted that partners in the consortium are joint owners in the code they develop and contribute.

"The goal is to have minimal code drift from the source code," Rubin said. He noted that people who add to the code must contribute them back to the main source.

EdX's commercial rivals also are widening their potential reach. The move by edX comes just after Coursera, another MOOC, said it had partnered with 10 university systems to offer free courses on the Coursera platform.

About the Author(s)

Michael Fitzgerald


Michael Fitzgerald writes about the power of ideas and the people who bring them to bear on business, technology and culture.

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