Moocs: edX unveils Arab initiative, Udacity rethinks ‘lousy product’

Harvard/MIT platform sees ‘huge demand’ as rival shifts approach

November 28, 2013

The president of one of the best-known massive open online course platforms has reiterated his belief that Moocs have a bright future.

Anant Agarwal, president of the edX Mooc platform founded last year by academics from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that there was “huge demand” for free online higher education, and dismissed concerns about the relatively small number of students who complete such courses.

His view contrasts with recent assertions by Sebastian Thrun, chief executive and co-founder of Udacity, another major Mooc provider. Professor Thrun told business magazine Fast Company that the low completion rates among students signed up to courses on Udacity’s platform meant that they were a “lousy product”.

He also announced Udacity’s move away from the academic massive open online course model towards more vocational, industry-specific programmes, which Professor Thrun described as “the biggest shift in the history of the company”.

Although courseware for these new Udacity courses will be free, charges will be levied for assistance and certification of completion.

Professor Agarwal told Times Higher Education: “I really disagree with Sebastian’s stance. We see huge demand for our courses…and we see universities and students benefiting.”

He observed that about 7 per cent of edX students earned a verified certificate of course completion, which he believed was “a good number”.

“We don’t think that’s a failure,” he said, adding that many students signed up to a Mooc not to complete the course, but to take as much or as little information from it as they wished.

Professor Agarwal also spoke about the launch of Edraak, a partnership between edX and the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development, which was established by the Queen Consort of Jordan to improve education for the Jordanian population.

Described as the first Mooc portal for the Arab world, it will offer a number of existing edX courses, translated into Arabic. Edraak will also develop its own courses with “leading Arab faculty members as well as world-renowned Arab professionals”.

The Edraak platform is created using edX’s open source software, which is free to access. However, any existing edX course translated into Arabic and offered on the platform will incur a “licence fee” that Professor Agarwal estimates will be in the region of $100,000 (£60,000).

Haifa Dia Al-Attia, chief executive of the Queen Rania Foundation, told THE that she hoped that Edraak would help to “bridge the gap” between the impact that Moocs are having in the English-speaking world, and their use among Arabic-speakers.

“Around 80 per cent of the Arab world is monolingual, so having Mooc platforms in English leaves behind 80 per cent of the Arab world’s population,” she said.

She added that Edraak would also work with businesses to develop courses that will equip Arab students with the skills that employers believe are lacking in some graduates, Ms Al‑Attia said.

“We hope the Mooc offerings will supplement what students are learning at university…and hopefully allow university professors [in the Arab world] to go online and see good practice…from some of the world’s top-tier universities.”

Two other global Mooc websites – XuetangX in China and France Université Numérique in France – also use edX’s open source software and both launched earlier this year.

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