Meet the CEO of edX, the Online Learning Platform

MOOC co-creator Anant Agarwal discusses a big shift in education

6 September 2016

Technology will play a major role in shaping the future of education. In fact, it already is, according to IEEE Senior Member Anant Agarwal, who helped create massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Agarwal is CEO of edX, which offers more than 1,000 free online courses from universities and other educational organizations around the world. Launched in 2012 by Harvard and MIT, edX is the world’s only nonprofit and open-source online learning platform. Those who sign up can find courses on computer science, economics, medicine, physics…just about any subject.

IEEE partnered with edX last year to offer courses in IEEE fields of interest.

A professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, Agarwal has won MIT’s Smullin and Jamieson prizes for teaching—in 2005 and 2010, respectively. He firmly believes in the importance of online education, he says, because it removes barriers, such as cost and location, and improves learning by providing immediate feedback and online collaboration.

“The best way to describe edX is that it’s a movement,” he says. Here he talks about the creation of edX, the need for online learning, and the future of education.

How did the idea for edX come about?

In 2011 a few technologists and educators at Harvard and MIT realized that while most people in the world could watch videos on YouTube, they were unable to access higher education content. EdX was designed with three main goals: to make education accessible for everyone, to enhance the learning experience for students both on and off campus, and to further research on education. EdX started with courses from Harvard and MIT and has now grown to more than 100 institutions. The fervor of our mission is shared by those involved.

How is edX, or online education in general, making education more accessible and enhancing learning?

My colleague David Pritchard, a professor of physics at MIT, says that once you’re a student sitting past the third row in a traditional classroom, you’re getting a distance education anyway. Students submit their homework and get feedback weeks later—or sometimes never. There’s no online collaboration. Labs are expensive; many schools don’t have them, or students don’t get to attempt different versions of experiments.

Online education can fix all these issues and open new avenues for learning. As an example, edX uses active learning, where learners watch short, interactive videos followed by questions, which is proven to improve outcomes. They get instant feedback on homework and exams.

We have really fun gamified labs where students can do, say, a circuits lab with music and virtual interactions. And students are collaborating with and responding to each other in seconds from across the globe. Engaging with people from different backgrounds, ages, and experiences provides additional perspective and helps broaden learners’ minds and ideas. These are just some ways in which online classrooms are revolutionizing education.

Has edX met your expectations? Studies have shown that MOOCs have not been effective in getting students to complete the courses.

We have more than met our expectations. In terms of access, we have more than 8 million students since we’ve launched, with 44 percent from developing countries. Completion rates vary from 5 to 80 percent per course. This depends on the subject and whether the student is enrolled to receive certification or college credit or registers simply to learn more about the topic as an informal learner.

For research purposes, we now have terabytes of data that we capture from the mouse clicks during every course, and we share this data with researchers. For instance, by seeing how long learners watch a video, where they drop off, and how engaged they are with videos, we were able to determine the optimal length for videos in edX courses. We are also measuring the impact of various teaching techniques based on how students respond to and grasp the subject. Completion rates are not the only benchmark in measuring success.

With that being said, we still have a long way to go.

How might edX be useful to engineers?

Today, there are jobs for the asking in engineering, computer science, and data science. However, graduates don’t seem to be getting jobs, and one reason is a skills gap in the latest technologies, like data science. Online education can bridge that gap. We have more than 1,000 courses on subjects including circuits and electronics as well as communication and management. Many engineering students come to edX to learn and acquire additional skills. And many are getting jobs and promotions because of that.

You have won teaching awards at MIT. Do you find teaching online courses just as rewarding as teaching in a classroom?

I’ve been teaching at MIT for 29 years. To me the most exciting part is seeing a student have an “Aha!” moment. Teaching on campus and online both provide these moments. In some sense, online can be even more rewarding, because you can help thousands of students have “Aha!” moments as opposed to the 50 or so in a classroom.

How do you envision education in the future?

I believe that in-person education alone will be history. All education will become blended, where courses are in classrooms and online or all online.

In a speech at the edX Global Forum, White House CTO Megan Smith said that she expects the future university to be “porous.” Imagine that you finish one year completely online, then go to a university to learn for two years, and then you get a job and spread out your fourth year to become a continuous learner. That’s an example of a porous university, where you can go in and out.

This article is part of our September 2016 special issue on The State of Engineering Education.

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