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Q&A: Anant Agarwal, edX's president and first professor

Q&A: Anant Agarwal, edX's president and first professor

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Agarwal heads up Harvard and MIT's joint online learning platform, edX. He spoke with us about massive open online courses (MOOCs) in general and edX in particular.

In May, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced their joint plan to "explore the frontiers of digital education" by offering free online courses to learners around the world. As a result, their new online learning platform edX entered the burgeoning world of MOOCs — that is, massive open online courses — backed by a hefty $60 million pledge from the prestigious institutions.

With the fall slate of classes starting soon and the University of California—Berkeley now on board, we spoke with edX's president and first professor, Anant Agarwal, about MOOCs in general and edX in particular.

What are your main goals for edX as its president?

We really want to reinvent education. We want to offer education on a planet scale to people all around the world. Anybody who has an interest and the capability to master the material should be able to access the content for free. We also really want to revolutionize campus education. We've been finding that online technologies can be applied on campus to create new blended models of learning.

What do those blended models look like?

In a blended model, you do what is called flipping the classroom. Flipping involves having students do video [lecture] sequences and some concept exercises at home before they come to class. Then, you can ask the students to come into the class for interactive sessions where they can sit down and have discussions, ask questions, do interactive laboratories, solve problems. It kind of reverses what is done today and it can be very effective.

You taught the first edX class, Circuits and Electronics, from March to June this year. What did you learn about online education and MOOCs?

The whole area of MOOCs and planet-scale learning is in its infancy. Very little is known about it, so a lot of what we did was guesswork. When we began the course, we were really concerned about the large number of students enrolled. We had 154,000 students sign up and our staff was about six or seven people, which is the kind of staff that we have for a 100-person on-campus class. We didn't know how we were going to deal with all the questions and so on that students usually have, but through our online discussion boards, we saw the students answering each other's questions. There were no repeat questions because once someone asked a question everybody could see the response. In that way, we were able to serve 154,000 students with a very small staff. I think that was clearly our biggest learning experience and the biggest surprise we had.

What did you have to change from the way you've taught in a physical classroom?

There was little that we did not change. In a bricks-and-mortar class, students come in for a couple hours of lectures during the week, then they go home and solve problems. On edX, we replace lectures with what we call sequences, which are snippets of videos interwoven with exercises. Students do have homework, but all the homeworks are online. In a traditional class, students submit their homework and then have to wait two weeks to get a response. Here, they submit the homework and they get instant feedback on whether it was right or wrong because the computer does the grading. If the answer was wrong, we give them as many tries as they want, so they keep trying and working until they get the right answer. That was a big change from a traditional class.

More than 154,000 students registered for Circuits and Electronics but only about 7,100 passed. How do you interpret that?

This was a hard class. It was virtually the same course that we teach at MIT. There are a variety of reasons that people have given for not completing the course. A lot of students just wanted to learn or just get the experience but didn't care to get a certificate at the end. Many of [those students] were not turning in assessments. Other students felt that they had inadequate preparation and background, and then some students felt they just needed more time for the course. They felt that if they had twice the time, for example, they would have been able to stick with it.

You've called edX "the single biggest change in education since the printing press." How will MOOCs transform higher education?

I think that online learning can really transform education in quality, scale and efficiency. Learning can be much better. Students have told us they've been much more engaged, they could learn at their own pace, and overall they felt the experience was much higher quality than a regular bricks-and-mortar class. In scale, we were able to support 154,000 students from around the world with online technologies. Finally, in efficiency, we were able to have the same staff support a large number of students, so learning can become very efficient.

A few recent headlines I've seen include "Will higher ed fall into same fate as newspaper industry" and "Will online education startups…end the era of expensive higher education?" Do MOOCs like edX threaten colleges and universities as we know them?

When new technologies get adopted and universities don't embrace them and stay still, that's a problem. But I think the analogy is not an apples-to-apples comparison, comparing learning institutions to newspapers. There is online learning assistance and platforms such as edX, but at the same time the same technologies can also be used to improve campus education. The blended models of learning that I talked about can dramatically improve campus education as well. I see online learning as a rising tide that will lift all boats. I think everything will be better.

You've said your goal is to educate a billion people around the world, but could the accessibility MOOCs offer decrease the cache of educations from Harvard or MIT?

The missions of Harvard and MIT are to provide access to learning and education and improve the general quality of life of humankind. What we're doing is simply a continuation of that mission. If the mission is expanded to educate a large number of people on a planet scale, that's a good thing. The campus experience is different. You cannot compare a campus experience to an online experience.

I think the cache of on-campus learning at elite institutions will continue, and if anything it will get better because the elite institutions are rapidly adopting online technologies for improving on-campus education as well.

Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University research professor and co-founder of the MOOC Udacity, predicted that within 50 years there will be only 10 universities left in the world. What do you make of that?

Fifty years is a long enough time that anything can happen. I'm not a soothsayer and I don't like to predict things 50 years out. Suffice it to say this is the year of disruption, and things are not going to be the same going into the future.

Why do you call this the year of disruption?

Education hasn't changed in millennia. Some of the biggest advances in education have been the use of PowerPoint, sliding blackboards and the print medium. There really hasn't been a lot of dramatic technology applied to education, and really no big changes have happened in education in hundreds of years. We've seen computing technologies applied to virtually every facet of mankind — healthcare, human productivity in the workplace, transportation, communications — but we really have not applied computing technologies in a concerted manner to education. These technologies are being applied to education as we speak, and when you apply computing technologies to a field in a concerted manner, history has shown that the field gets completely revolutionized.

But you assume this disruption will be for the better?

It will be very different and I believe it will come out substantially for the better in quality, in scale and in efficiency.

What do you see in the future for MOOCs in general?

This is a time of disruption and experimentation. Things are going to be moving very quickly. I expect that more and more people will be listing certificates and courses from universities doing MOOCs. You'll be seeing a lot more certificate references appearing on resumes from places like MITx and HarvardX and so on.

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure