As a 12-year-old boy in India, Anant Agarwal bought 80 chickens and set up a chicken farm in an outhouse in the yard outside his Mangalore home.
Selling eggs to local restaurants gave the future president of edX – the US massive open online course platform – his first successful business and offered the first display of the entrepreneurial flair that has resulted in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor becoming a leading figure in online higher education.
“The trick is to wake up at 4am [and collect the eggs] before the chickens wake up,” he says. “I had quite a decent business-to-business enterprise going.”
Despite this gift for making money, one of the features that sets Agarwal’s edX apart from other prominent Mooc portals – such as Coursera and Udacity – is the organisation’s “not-for-profit” approach. The UK’s FutureLearn, a Mooc platform owned by The Open University, has also confirmed its intention to operate for profit – something that critics say can demote the importance of education quality in favour of ensuring quick returns for investors.
“I have had five start-up companies in my career…so I do see making money as a good thing,” Agarwal explains. “But for me and the edX founding partners – MIT and Harvard University – education is a basic human right that everyone should have access to.
“I believe that we should make decisions based purely on principle, not on the basis of return on investment for our investors. We felt the best way to do that was for edX to be a non-profit.”
Of course, no firm can survive without revenue, and the former egg‑seller has hatched a number of plans to try to ensure the financial stability of his company.
One route being pursued by edX, which is now partnered with universities across the world, is the licensing of its online courses to other higher education institutions. The idea is that students can view video lectures at home, or on campus in their own time, before receiving face-to-face instruction and guidance from their institution’s academics.
Best of blends
This concept of “blended learning” is not new. However, the proliferation of online material as a result of the Mooc movement means that it is becoming increasingly easy to access entire courses online, and licensing this material is a potential source of revenue for providers.
“We are looking at how we can use what we’re learning in Moocs, and the technology we’re creating with Moocs, to improve education on campus,” Agarwal says. “We already have blended courses running in a number of places – from the National University of Mongolia to places in the US, including MIT, San José State University and [the University of California,] Berkeley.”
For these courses, Agarwal has a new acronym – Spocs, which stands for small, private, online courses. Plans are already in place to license Spocs to a dozen California State University campuses from autumn this year.
However, some academics in the state have expressed concern that moving lectures online could prompt universities to cut the number of academic staff they employ.
For example, earlier this year, when San José State announced plans to use a philosophy course developed by edX, lecturers in the philosophy department penned an open letter declaring that “administrators at the [California State University system] are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education”.
Agarwal, who earlier this month spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh in defence of Moocs, denies that taking the teaching out of the lecture hall will jeopardise jobs. He insists instead that although lecturers’ roles may change slightly, students using Mooc resources will still benefit from contact time with professors.
“When textbooks came out we could have said the same thing – what’s going to happen to all the professors who had to remember and talk about the content? What it did was to transform professors’ jobs into ones where, rather than imparting content, they worked with students to impart knowledge and learning.”
He describes Moocs as “the next-generation textbook”, moving the lecturer’s role away from imparting knowledge to teaching students how to “understand and interpret the content”. The analogy continues into the edX pricing plan for licensing its courses to higher education institutions.
“What we might want to charge a university depends on the number of students, but one could imagine it should be in the order of the price of a textbook per student,” Agarwal explains, suggesting that “$50 to $100 [£32 to £65] per student” would be a “reasonable” figure.
“We’re considering pricing for other countries,” he adds, “because $50 might not be so much in the UK or the US but it is a lot of money in India or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so we have talked about how [our pricing supports] the democratising [of education] and increasing access.”
Not standing still
However, Agarwal is not relying solely on this development. Another revenue stream being piloted by edX involves the company moving away from higher education into other industries. It was confirmed recently that the International Monetary Fund will be the first non-higher education entity to use the edX platform, employing it to deliver financial courses, first to “small groups” of government officials and then to the public from next year.
Agarwal says that the next step will be to exploit the revenue potential in “executive education”, known in the UK as continuing professional development, by creating Spocs that firms pay for in order to develop their staff.
“We believe in a non-profit approach to education, but we aren’t opposed to making money or to bringing in revenues,” Professor Agarwal concludes, adding that there is plenty of money in the bank to fund the pilots under way.
“The way to look at it is that although we have an extraordinary sense of urgency at edX – there is so much to be done and we’re doing it very quickly – it’s not from a point of view of our funds running out,” he says. “We have revenues coming in already, and funds running out is not something we are using to dictate our speed.”