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A Conversation With Anant Agarwal, President of the edX Project

University Business, September 2012

In May, MIT and Harvard announced a $60 million joint venture, called edX, to develop an open-source platform to deliver online courses. The descendant of MIT’s OpenCourseWare project that made the institution’s course materials freely available, edX offers significant improvements. For one thing, unlike OCW, edX will host full MITx and Harvardx faculty-led courses, with certificates of mastery at completion. In July, edX announced the addition of UC Berkeley to the project, and the formation of the X-University Consortium.

We spoke to MIT’s Anant Agarwal, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and president of the edX project, about what this technology could mean for the future of education.

Q: With the UC Berkeley partnership, you now have three institutions actively participating in the edX project, with many more interested in joining. What will be the key to a successful partnership?

Agarwal: We are looking at a number of criteria as we expand. First is a commitment to quality. We want our courses to reflect the same level of rigor as on our campuses. They will be taught by the same professors, with the same level of quality and care. We also want our partners to strive to improve education in general with a commitment to campus education. Our partners should be thinking about the learning that takes place on our respective campuses.

In an ideal world, we would like to bring on everybody, but we are still a small staff and we clearly have to grow with care in a controlled manner. Initially, we are looking to increase diversity in a number of dimensions. For example, we want diversity in courses and content that we offer, participation from both public and private institutions, large and small, within the U.S. and around the world. These are all criteria that we will be looking at.

Q: What makes edX and the X-University Consortium different from Coursera and other MOOCs (massive open online courses)?

Agarwal: First, I think it’s a great thing that there are a number of organizations looking at offering free online courses to the world. EdX is looking to open-source its platform so it can be improved organically by the community around the world. EdX is also committed to blending learning models to improve on-campus learning. And finally, edX is dedicated to research. That’s a large part of what we are looking at: How do we improve education and use the data that we gather to improve the overall learning experience?

Q: You’ve noted that edX will offer “certificates of mastery” at the completion of a course. Considering the changing economy and changing education landscape, do you see a day when certificates (or something other than a traditional diploma) become the norm?

Agarwal: I think companies today are already moving in the direction of looking at competence. When they interview someone for a job, they are looking at a variety of qualifications. We often see it in software and technology, oftentimes people don’t necessarily look at what degree they have or from what school they graduated. They just look at how good you are and what recommendations you have. I see people sometimes in various fields that don’t even have a degree in that field. They are completely self-taught. I think that over time, as people look for more flexible kinds of skill sets and diverse, interdisciplinary skills, the whole concept of degrees will be changed. Today, degrees are “stovepiped”—you have a degree in mechanical engineering or you have a degree in electrical engineering—but the time is coming where we’re going to have a lot more interdisciplinary talent needed. The jobs will also require knowledge of energy, policy, computer science, writing, business, and so on.

People care about competency, how good you are at something you do. Degrees are an OK first step, but at the end of the day, employers are looking at how good you are. There are a number of ways of demonstrating your skills.

Q: X-University courses will be free, with the only cost being that of the completion certificate. Yet you’ve said that the goal is to become self-sustaining. How is that possible?

Agarwal: There are a number of ways you can do this that aren’t rocket science. For example, you can have executive education programs that corporations pay for. Or, you can offer various kinds of placement services to employers. Today, employers spend a lot of money with recruiters to find the best candidates. It’s not unusual to see a recruiter earning 20 to 25 percent of the first month’s income for placing an engineer. So, if we can help identify those top-notch learners around the world, there is incredible value in that.

And, as we continue to bring computing technology to learning, it makes learning much more efficient. With the kind of technology we’re talking about, it is possible to have hundreds of thousands of learners around the world supported by a cast of instructors that is not unlike what you would have in a class with a couple hundred students on campus. The fact is that when you are serving that many people, you can become self-sustaining more easily. I don’t think it will be too hard to achieve that.

Q: There’s still a segment of the education community that believes we are a long way off from the point where online learning can completely replace face-to-face learning. What would you say to them?

Agarwal: I think that is fair. But I would be surprised if there are too many people who believe we should not be experimenting seriously with online learning. Online learning is a serious application of computing technologies to education, something we have not done in a concerted manner since the early days of education. As I’ve said in the past, the really big innovations in education have been the printing press, computers and maybe things like PowerPoint. There really have not been a lot of huge inventions in education. This is the first time we are really applying that computing technology to learning on a large scale. I think computing and online technologies can bring a lot of value to education. I think we can reinvent education and learning.

At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone is saying we should replace campus face-to-face education with online learning. But for large areas of the world that do not have access to good education, we can use online learning to significantly improve what they do have access to. And on campus we can reinvent the way learning is done by offering a blended model with the best of online technology and the best of the face-to-face experience to create something that is simply better than what we had in the past.

Is online better than face-to-face? No, but online has a number of attributes that are substantially better than what we have today, and by blending these in with what we now have on campus, we can create a better learning experience. I believe the blended model will really take hold on campuses.

Q: When edX was announced, UB did an online reader survey to get their reactions. While the responses were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, some were concerned that these efforts might dilute the perceived value of a college education. What is your response to that?

Agarwal: Well, there are many examples even at the high school level where online resources are already available, like the Kahn Academy, and there are a number of universities with distance programs. So a lot of what people are concerned about has already happened. 

But if campus education stays static and does not embrace technology and new ideas and new ways of improving, that campus will definitely suffer. I think that as these online technologies become available, the question is not whether one will replace the other, but rather how do we embrace these technologies to enhance the campus experience substantially. Online learning is like a rising tide that lifts all boats. Whether those “boats” are campuses or whether they are learners around the world, I think it will improve everyone.

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