When Anant Agarwal taught 155,000 students on the very first EdX course in 2012, academia finally woke up to what was potentially a game-changing force in higher education.
Six years later, the professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) can reel out many more impressive facts about the non-profit online learning platform that he has led since 2014: it offers more than 2,000 online courses from about 130 leading institutions and teaches nearly 18 million people. Courses are available in 65 languages, with 2 million learners registered on its Spanish-language platform alone.
But many remain sceptical about whether the massive open online course phenomenon and EdX – a collaboration between MIT and Harvard University – have actually delivered the radical disruption to higher education that many predicted. University enrolments have generally held strong in the US and the UK in the face of the emergence of digital rivals, while the social mobility gains envisaged in 2012 have not occurred, as two-thirds of learners on the platforms are graduates.
In EdX’s offices in Boston, Professor Agarwal remains as enthusiastic as ever about EdX’s transformative potential, but seems glad that the talk of the Mooc “avalanche” sweeping away universities is over.
“There was a lot of hype at the start, but most of it came from leaders of for-profit providers talking about universities going away. And while others were talking about this, this is when the real troopers got down to work,” explained Professor Agarwal.
Among the innovations are a new suite of computerised marking methods, with EdX courses using 54 types of assessment to grade courses, including peer-to-peer marking and, most contentiously, machine marking of essays.
“We don’t do anything at EdX that does not scale to millions of learners,” explained Professor Agarwal when speaking about EdX’s assessment practices. In the case of a philosophy course, faculty and graduate teaching assistants marked the first 100 papers and fed their rubric into a computer, which marked the remaining thousands of scripts, he added. “The teaching assistants and AI were grading to the same level,” Professor Agarwal said.
Other upgrades have come from partners using its open-source software, such as online exam invigilation, according to Professor Agarwal.
Giving away its software in this manner has been helpful for some of the world’s 1,600 virtual learning platforms, including China’s XuetangX site, which now offers 1,300 courses in Chinese. “This site may actually overtake EdX in terms of numbers of learners, but it’s exciting to give things away like this,” he said.
Other recent innovations include “micro-master’s”, which allows students to stack modules into a full master’s degree credentialled by a university, and the wholly online master’s degrees offered by many universities. Last month, the University of Edinburgh became the latest partner to offer an EdX master’s in business analytics at a fraction of cost to learners of their normal degrees.
The Indian-born professor, who took his PhD at Stanford University, was recently awarded the second annual Yidan Prize, founded by the Chinese billionaire philanthropist Charles Chen Yidan, in recognition of his contribution to education. The award is accompanied by around $3.9 million (£3 million) in prize money, which Professor Agarwal intends to use to develop EdX’s “micro-bachelor’s”.
However, many wonder about the wisdom of stepping into the undergraduate realm given the low rates of completion of master’s courses – only about 5 per cent who enrol finish.
Professor Agarwal said, however, that EdX’s non-completion rate was misleading. “For our certificate track programme, where users pay a small fee to start, about 60 per cent finish – much better than the 30 per cent rate at for-profits,” he said.
However, EdX has resisted heading fully down the paywalled model favoured by for-profit rivals such as Coursera and Udacity, Professor Agarwal said.
“Many business experts have recommended we charge $5 at the start, which would certainly shore up our revenues but would conflict with our mission [to open up education],” he said, adding that too many providers “lie about” their free content because they quickly ask for payment. “It’s like offering the first minute of the movie for free, but you have to pay to watch the rest,” he said.
Like the UK’s main platform Futurelearn, EdX is still loss-making, but it will be breaking even within two years, said Professor Agarwal.
“We are very close already and, if we stopped investing in new projects, we would be sustainable,” he explained. “Harvard and MIT have given us $80 million [£62.6 million], which is a substantial investment, but as we are open source it’s a very enlightened type of self-interest, which also helps others.”