EdX eyes bigger role in disrupting campus education

The global online learning platform edX, set up by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, is preparing a further disruption of traditional higher education models, with new micro-degrees and ‘stacked’ degrees made up of credits from a range of institutions, according to Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX.

Agarwal was in Hong Kong on 9 December to receive the Yidan Prize for Education Development, one of two global prizes awarded each year by the Yidan Prize Foundation, set up by Chinese philanthropist Charles Chen Yidan, founder of Shenzhen-based internet giant Tencent.

The prize – now in its second year – is seen as the most valuable global education prize, providing almost US$3.9 million in institutional and individual awards to each of its laureates.

More than 18 million people around the world have taken courses since 2011 on the edX MOOC (massive open online course) platform, which runs some 2,400 courses from more than 140 prestigious universities, including Harvard University, MIT, the University of Oxford, the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

“We founded edX as a non-profit, online and open-source learning platform. Our original vision – to provide open access to high-quality education at scale to learners around the world, regardless of geographic location, financial resources, prior academic qualifications, gender, race or other demographics – remains at the heart of edX,” Agarwal said in his acceptance speech at the prize-giving ceremony on 9 December.

The winners were initially announced in September.

“I grew up in India, where I saw first-hand this incredible need. You could get a good education if you were super rich. Or, you could get a good education if you were super bright and could afford expensive college admissions coaching camps,” he said.

Less privileged, he himself was fortunate enough to have a great mentor, his mathematics teacher, at St Aloysius High School in Mangalore, India. “He took a particular interest in me,” he told the audience and provided many hours of free tutoring to enable Agarwal to achieve a place at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Madras.

“My own experience in India is not unique. For far too many people, education beyond high school is unaffordable, requires too much time to complete, and the knowledge and skills obtained are increasingly irrelevant in a 21st century world. And for those who have access to education, our system has not changed in centuries, yielding low quality, inflexible learning,” he told the award ceremony.

He said the prize money would go towards realising edX’s plans for new hybrid ‘stackable’ degrees, MicroMasters and MicroBachelors degrees for students to pick and choose according to need, further breaking down traditional structures of degree courses to better cater for lifelong learning needs.

Non-profit driving force

He has been adamant that edX should remain non-profit and open access, stemming from his own university experience.

“I simply did not have the background everybody else seemed to already have. So that was a huge wake-up call for me that the level of education in various places can be very, very different. And certainly sowed the seeds in me that I wanted to give everybody an equal shot at a good education and an equal shot at success,” he told University World News in a wide-ranging interview.

Everybody believes education is a human right, yet universities do not behave that way, restricting access. “It’s natural to have admissions because the campus has limits on how many people can stay on campus,” he says, but points out that denominational schools “might have admissions based on religion, some may have admissions based on quality, some have admissions based on money, and some have admissions based on who your father or mother were; it’s called legacy”.

He sees such restrictions on bricks and mortar campuses as artificial and unfair, as edX has shown that “if you place opportunity in front of people, they will absolutely grab it”.

The non-profit, open access philosophy permeates edX, setting it apart from other MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and the United Kingdom’s FutureLearn.

Agarwal admits that the edX project was in many ways always an idealistic venture. “For education we wanted a non-profit to do it in a way that was really good for the world, as opposed to as a company thinking how to make the most money as quickly as possible irrespective of how good it is for the world or not,” he explains, adding that before turning to edX, he built up five for-profit companies.

“With edX almost every decision that we make tends to be different from if a for-profit were to make the same decision. So when we price things, we think how low can we price it. For-profits think how high can we price it.”

Open source software

The edX platform known as Open edX is deliberately based on non-proprietary, open source software. “This is our algorithm and crown jewels, but we give it to the world for free – anyone can download it and use it,” Agarwal says.

“In the space of the seven years that we’ve been active, 1,800 active sites around the world are using the Open edX [platform]. “You can think of them as 1,800 competitors. What for-profit company would do that?”

But the result is that there are more than 20 million edX learners and another 20 million learners on Open edX sites – a total of over 40 million, making edX the world’s biggest learning platform.

Countries that adapted Open edX to launch national infrastructures for education include Hong Kong with HKMOOC, while China has XuetangX, powered by an Open edX platform with more than 1,300 courses in Chinese and 14 million learners. Israel recently launched its national platform based on it, and others include France, Russia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and many others.

Even for-profit companies such as McKinsey launched Open edX platforms, such as McKinsey Academy, he notes.

“We release a version of the platform every month or every quarter, and everybody can take it and use it,” he explains. “One of the benefits is that many of these sites also develop the platform and add features and they contribute back to the Open edX corpus,” for example, adding 54 different types of assessments to the platform, which no individual organisation would afford to do.

“EdX has become the most sophisticated platform in the world, benefiting from a kind of crowd-sourced development,” Agarwal says.

Training and capacity-building

But many countries prefer national solutions rather than importing ready-made courses from Western universities, no matter how prestigious. EdX also offers training. “We’ve got online courses that teach you how to create online courses,” Agarwal says and points to work with the government in Afghanistan to help them build capacity for their national platform for online learning.

The edX training was done in India and so the team from Afghanistan did not have to travel far. “We did the training on how to create online courses and they in turn went back to Afghanistan and trained their teachers,” he says. “It’s a labour of love. There’s no money in it.”

Much of this is funded through philanthropic donations. MIT and Harvard have provided US$80 million so far to edX. Agarwal notes they don’t make use of venture capital funding because of the strict return on investment requirements of such financing. Instead they sell training courses to big corporations. And while the courses on the online platform are free to the user, they charge for some assessments and certificates which brings in revenue.

But edX is still innovating with non-profit and hybrid models, where universities create high quality content available for those on campus as well as accessible for all-comers online.

With technology disrupting the labour market, some jobs disappearing and new jobs being created, upskilling has become vital and has led to the launch of new edX MicroMasters courses – roughly equivalent to 25% of a masters degree with completely open admissions, with courses for free but a US$1,000 charge for the credential certificate.

Already around three million learners have enrolled in these new flexible MicroMasters programmes and Professional Certificates.

First hybrid ‘stacked’ degree

But Agarwal acknowledges that creating online courses is an expensive endeavour, leading to the concept of ‘stacking’, where multiple courses from many universities can be ‘stacked’ together as modules to obtain a degree from different universities, as well as partnering with industry to upskill learners.

EdX recently launched full masters degrees for universities looking to go from single courses and small certificates to fully online masters degrees for around 20-25% of the cost of a traditional masters degree in the United States.

Edx recently launched its first full masters in supply chain management, with 40% of the degree online from MIT and with Arizona State University providing the other 60% and delivering the masters certificate. “It’s the world’s first hybrid stacked degree,” says Agarwal.

He points to other types of combinations, such as a partnership with Information Technology University in Pakistan, which wanted to launch a data science degree but lacked the teachers, with a worldwide shortage of data science teachers.

EdX offers a MicroMasters in Data Science from the University of California San Diego, and, in partnership with edX, students in Pakistan were able to take six courses from the faculty of computer science at Information Technology University and five online edX courses in data science from San Diego.

“Boom! teacher shortage problem solved,” says Agarwal, noting that control stays with Information Technology University, which delivers its students the diploma in data science.

Credit exchanges

“This is the future of education – universities are going omni-channel where students take campus courses in person and also online courses,” Agarwal says.

“Universities are innovating alongside us and are encouraging us to create credit exchanges where universities exchange credit for each other’s programmes.”

He points to the new MicroMasters credit exchange set up by edX. “When a learner completes a MicroMasters programme, a list of all the universities that we have partnerships with and that will transfer credit, appears on the dashboard,” he says. Currently around a dozen MicroMasters out of the 50 on offer by edX have credit pathways, says Agarwal, with more to come.

At the Yidan Prize acceptance ceremony Agarwal said he would use the generous award to launch MicroBachelors programmes. “Truly disrupting higher education, MicroBachelors programmes will stack into full undergraduate degrees, thereby reimagining how education can be delivered,” he said in his acceptance speech.

“EdX was founded on the mission to transform and expand access to education globally, and the edX MicroBachelors programme is the next step forward in fulfilling that mission as we work to reimagine how undergraduate education can be delivered in a modular, omni-channel way. This prize allows for us to make a critical and momentous step in furthering our mission.”