A major digital education initiative set up by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has just doubled its number of university partners and signed up its first members from outside the US. The edX programme, which offers free online learning, is now joined by universities in Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland. “We have had an international student community almost from the beginning and bringing these leading international universities into edX will help us meet the tremendous demand we are experiencing,” says edX president Anant Agarwal from MIT.

edX is a not-for-profit education programme offering “MOOCs”, or massive open online courses. MOOCs differ from conventional online learning programmes, being free of charge, offering vast resources and not usually leading to any formal credit being awarded by the providers. Although MOOCs have existed for several years, the founders of edX say they are raising the bar by building an entire open-source platform that links some of the world’s leading universities. A typical edX course consists of “learning sequences” involving videos presented by university academics, along with assessments and online interactive laboratories.

Harvard and MIT both invested $30m in edX early last year and were subsequently joined in the initiative by the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas, Wellesley College and Georgetown University. Now, these six institutions will be joined by Rice University (also in the US), McGill and Toronto universities in Canada, plus the Australian National University, Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. “Each of these schools was carefully selected for the distinct expertise and regional influence they bring to our growing family of edX institutions,” says Agarwal.

All six current edX members launched courses in 2012 and have new courses starting this spring. Among the new batch is a course on electricity and magnetism taught by Walter Lewin, an MIT physicist who already has a strong online following through earlier recorded lectures. Other existing edX courses include those on quantum mechanics and computing taught by Berkeley academic Umesh Vazirani, and on solid-state chemistry by MIT human-genome pioneer Eric Lander. According to edX spokesperson Dan O’Connell, Delft has already indicated that it will be begin offering edX courses from autumn, including courses on solar energy and space engineering.