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Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX, USA

Founded in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT, online platform edX now has six million unique learners around the world. The company’s CEO, Anant Agarwal, talks to The PIE about the evolution of MOOCs, what is driving their change, and the challenge of sustainability.

The PIE: Can you tell me about the history of edX and why it was established?

"We are now entering the era of MOOC 2.0. And I have to say in MOOC 2.0, MOOCs will get personal"

AA: edX is an online learning destination, our goal is to reimagine the world of education. We were set up as a non-profit four years ago, with the aim as I said of reimagining education. We partner with some of the best universities and institutions in the world who offer courses and programmes on edX and learners all over the world can take these courses. So very simply put, we were set up to create, to be thinking about what should the future of education should look like, both online and at universities.

The PIE: How has the platform grown since it was set up?

AA: Today we are at six million unique learners all over the world, we have learners from every single country in the world. Depending on who you talk to there is between 196-228 countries and we have learners from every country in the world. We have about 100 institutional partners, about 750 courses on edX and we have over 20 million course enrolments that have been taken.

“We do want to find a sustainable model over time and so we are looking for revenue approaches with our partners”

The PIE: Tell me about edX’s outreach worldwide?

AA: We are non-profit and as part of our mission to provide education to everybody in the world, to increase the number of people that could get an education, we made our platform available as open source software. We use our platform as part of but anybody in the world can download all our software and launch their own platform.

In fact many corporations have done that, many countries have launched national platforms with open edX. France has launched it, Saudi Arabia has launched one, China has launched one and most recently Russia, Hong Kong and Korea have launched national platforms using open edX. So open edX is fast becoming a worldwide global standard for education.

The beauty is it is a soft partnership, in that anybody can download the software and launch it. They partner with edX sometimes, where they can launch the best courses that are offered on their national platform on edX, which has an international audience.

Many of these platforms have local, regional offerings, like Russia is a Russian platform, China is a Chinese platform and there is a partnership in that. Let’s take China; the Chinese platform is called XuetangX, it is a collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Tsinghua University. There it is a two way partnership, one is that edX licenses courses from our platform to them, they translate them into Chinese and offer them in Chinese on Xuetangx.

We are also interested in working with the partners where we take some of their courses and offer that on edX, so there is a cross fertilisation of ideas and content, the partners make developments on the platform and they contribute those developments back to the community.

The PIE: Is it quite a challenge to find a sustainable model for online free learning?

AA: The incremental cost of a learner is virtually zero, but there is a fixed additional investment and even as a non-profit, we do want to find a sustainable model over time and so we are looking for revenue approaches with our partners because it is costing universities money to put the content, it is costing us money to develop the platform and support the open edX community, so we are thinking about revenue models on how these can help support our mission.

“In the Global Freshman Academy, learners can come and take a first year of university courses online”

We are exploring a number of models and it is not easy to find a sustainable model so we are experimenting with a number of models. We are finding promise in a few examples; one of them is you can offer courses for free but if you want to get a credential you pay a fee for the credential. The second one is you pay for credit when you pass, so that’s another revenue of what you pay for, credit. So in many cases the model basically means that you can learn for free but if you want some value added service, like a credential or credit or maybe support, then you pay a fee.

The PIE: Tell me about the Global Freshman Academy that edX is involved in?

AA: The Global Freshman Academy, which is a collaboration between edX and Arizona State University, is a little landmark initiative. It was the first time that MOOCs could result in university credit and really heralded the onset MOOC 2.0. In the Global Freshman Academy, learners can come and take a first year of university courses online. You can take the courses for free, you can pay $45 and sign up to earn a verified certificate in each course. If you do that, you get to take a virtually proctored exam, so this way you get to demonstrate it’s your own work. If you pass, you then have the option to get credit on an ASU transcript. This model is very unique in that it’s pay when you pass, as opposed to paying up front, so you pay $600 per course and you can get credit.

There’s three unique features about Global Freshman Academy and why it is a landmark initiative, one is that you pay when you pass for credit; second is that it is open admissions, you can get admission to this simply by clicking on an enrol button there is no admission requirements, it is open to everybody in the world; and the third one is that you can learn for free. There is a free option for the content, and these three are unique, we haven’t seen them ever before.

The PIE: So credit-driven MOOCs is something we will see more of?

AA: There has been online degree programmes for the longest time but online degree programmes have an admissions and you pay before, so this is truly MOOC in that it is free but once you pass you can upsell, you can buy credit if you pass, so that is the first time MOOCs had that available. What credit is doing it is now driving MOOC 2.0, it is causing us to get more of the classroom experience into MOOCs. MOOCs get personal, it is causing us to think about doubling down on quality.

“What credit is doing it is now driving MOOC 2.0, it is causing us to get more of the classroom experience into MOOCs”

The PIE: There is a lot of discussion around edtech providing a personalised experience. Where do you see this going?

AA: So we are now entering the era of MOOC 2.0. And I have to say in MOOC 2.0, MOOCs will get personal. On edX we are implementing a number of features that enable a much more personal experience, one example is teams. Where the teams, 2-10 learners can find each other and form groups to learn together on edX, so that is a very unique feature.

I believe the social learning will be the next frontier for MOOCs. We also have seen that learning outcomes are better when students study together, there is a paper out of MIT that studied this and showed that students are more likely to pass if they work together with other students or mentors.

“We also have seen that learning outcomes are better when students study together”

The PIE: How do you see education keeping up with technology?

AA: We have already seen lots of little changes and in the Global Freshman Academy there was a huge leap forward. We launched a micro-Master’s with MIT, which is unbundled credential, it’s a micro credential for the digital age, that’s a huge leap forward.

We are seeing both little steps and big steps and I think that many innovative universities are beginning to make the big leaps. One role that edX plays in all of this is that as part of edX partnership we create a consortium of universities, it is called the xConsortium. Universities collaborate and see how they can share best practices.

We hold the edX Global Forum where our university partners get together and talk about what others are doing and how they can collaborate to create systems, for example they’re are talking about the potential of creating a system for exchanging credit for their courses on edX.

The PIE: How can you overcome the problem of access when it comes to MOOCs?

AA:  I think we are enabling it through open edX, previously before open edX and edX there was no scalable large scale software platform that you could use to launch a national infrastructure.

To my knowledge, edX is the only largescale open source platform out there that any country can download for free, you can launch a national infrastructure for learning. France has done that, China has done that, Russia has done that, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan with JMOOC, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. The list of countries is growing that are launching national infrastructures using open edX. That would be a great way to start, and oh did I mention it was free?

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