MIT digital learning dean quits as edX sale backlash grows

Nobel laureate among professors vowing to move courses on to non-profit alternative platform after deal with 2U

July 19, 2021
Empty computer lab illustrating online education platform edX sale to 2U
Source: iStock

The dean of digital learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has resigned as a faculty revolt against the sale of non-profit online course platform edX to for-profit competitor 2U grows, Times Higher Education can reveal.

Krishna Rajagopal, who has announced his departure, told colleagues that he had “serious continuing reservations about the path forward for edX that MIT has announced”. Meanwhile, many of his colleagues have vowed to create a new non-profit alternative platform to distribute their courses online.

MIT created edX with Harvard University and developed it to have 160 partner institutions serving nearly 40 million students, many of them overseas – only to acknowledge that the idea of providing elite-level courses at no charge would struggle for financial sustainability.

But selling the platform to 2U for $800 million (£580 million) was blasted by several MIT faculty as a betrayal by the institution’s president, L. Rafael Reif.

“This will seed the deplorable, reprehensible industry of for-profit education in the United States,” said Susan Silbey, an MIT professor of sociology and management.

Others who declared their distress over the sale – and promised to leave edX for the planned faculty-organised alternative – included Esther Duflo, MIT’s Nobel prizewinning professor of poverty alleviation and development economics.

Professor Duflo said that the free distribution of MIT courses over edX had helped many students abroad in recent years – including some who later took regular MIT classes – and said that such work did not now appear “compatible with” edX’s apparent mission under the control of 2U.

Leaders of both MIT and 2U – a 13-year-old company that works with non-profit colleges and universities to distribute their courses online – have defended their agreement as a prudent response to market conditions that enjoys wide support in academia and beyond.

MIT reiterated Professor Reif’s position that the sale “was the most responsible path forward” given the growing costs of subsidising edX. “We respect that the response to the recent announcement has been varied and personal,” an MIT spokeswoman said.

Christopher Paucek, the chief executive and co-founder of 2U, said that he had seen an “overwhelmingly positive response” from edX and 2U partners. 2U, which will benefit from the creation of a combined entity with access to more than 50 million students worldwide, has committed to “guaranteeing affordability” through the use of free courses.

Professor Rajagopal, who will remain professor of physics at MIT, declined to comment. However, in an email sent to colleagues on the day the sale was announced, seen by THE, he says: “There is…broad agreement on the positive and negative aspects of this particular deal with 2U. However, when I add up the pros and cons, I have serious continuing reservations about the path forward for edX that MIT has announced.”

External assessments of the edX-2U agreement largely reflected a split between longstanding sceptics of for-profit education, and industry leaders who recognise the risks but are willing to withhold potential criticisms while the partnership develops.

The latter includes Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, which runs one of the nation’s largest online operations. Professor Crow said that he wished ASU had the resources to have made the edX purchase itself, acknowledged the difficulty of keeping its non-profit mission alive, and predicted that MIT and Harvard would make good use of the sale revenue in another non-profit venture.

However, Stephanie Hall, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, noted that the agreement requires edX to offer free courses for only another five years. “So 2U has essentially purchased a massive lead generator that will help them export a predatory model on a grander scale in low- and middle-income countries,” Dr Hall said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: MIT digital learning dean quits amid growing backlash against edX sale

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Reader's comments (2)

I was surprised at the deal; I had thought edX would continue as the non-profit alternative to Coursera, with funding from membership fees by the universities that it serves as well as from course incomes. MIT and Harvard have now made a profitable exit on their startup business, which was built on funding from the Gates Foundation and from all universities who have provided their courses through edX (and paid for it). Many of them are publicly funded. I hope that they enjoyed the ride.
Money talks and bullshit walks in America.

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