Recently, I got the opportunity to speak with Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. As the professor of edX’s first-ever MOOC and a proponent of access to education, Mr. Agarwal is one of the luminaries of online education. edX has over 3 million users from every country in the world. Of the Big 3 MOOC platforms, edX is the only one that is operated as a non-profit organization. Mr. Agarwal and I talked about a variety of topics, including how edX is making MOOCs more accessible to underserved populations, how online education can lead to employment, and of course, whether MOOC-based degrees are on the horizon.

LP: To start I want to say thank you. Thank you for speaking with me, but more importantly, thank you for putting all of this great content out into the world.

AA: You know, I’ve been seeing folks like yourself taking advantage of our resources to further their education, with the key words being “without incurring additional debt.” I think it’s great.

LP: Thank you. I have a bunch of questions so maybe I can just dive right in.

AA: Please do.

LP: First of all, I’ve been impressed with edX’s dedication to reaching populations that haven’t been served, but a lot of the press coverage of MOOCs that’s been negative has focused on the high educational level of people who are taking them. I’m interested in hearing whether you think the edX user population is a match with the target population you’re going for.

AA: Our mission was really to create a better world and provide access to education for learners all over the world. When we started out we had in mind learners frankly not such as yourself, student who in some sense need the education the most – college going students, high schoolers. Then when the data came back, we found that about 66% of our learners already had a college degree, about a third did not.

When the data came out saying a significant portion of the users already have a college degree, the view any for-profit MOOC providers took was, that’s where the market is, how do we serve that market? We’re a non-profit, and the view we’ve taken is the exact opposite. Which is, look, as part of a non-profit mission we’ve set out to solve a certain type of problem, and so rather than react to market forces, we have to change what we’re doing to really reach the kind of people we need to reach.

So, we launched a high school initiative, we started partnerships with many developing countries, we open-sourced our platform, all to try to reach that demographic. With the high school courses, for example, we’ve really moved the needle. For those courses only 50% of the learners already have a college degree. Also, it turns out that of those that have a college degree, parents and teachers are a substantial part. So we have ways in which we can reach our goals.

This is not to say that we don’t serve people who already have college degree, we do — we want to target learners from 8 years of age to 95 in a model we call continuous lifelong education — it’s just that we have to travel the extra mile to reach the people that really need it. In some sense this is probably not what you want to hear since you yourself are in that 66%.

LP: That’s true, but I still find that the courses on edX are extremely challenging, and when you provide challenging content, people who are seeking a challenge will appreciate it no matter where they come from or what their background is.

AA: Maybe you’re right there, Laurie. We attract a certain demographic, people who like a challenge. And that said, many of our courses require prerequisites. Let’s say you have a learner in Africa, and they want to take a great course in entrepreneurship or innovation or management, and there’s some pretty deep mathematics associated with it. You have to have the basic mathematics courses first before you can even conceive of taking those courses. That’s why we’re working to come up with the prerequisite courses all the way from high school to college so that we can create pathways for students no matter where they are in their education.

LP: Even though I may not be the typical developing world student, I am a learner taking MOOCs from Africa. I’m interested in hearing more about how MOOCs can be useful in a developing world context. I’m curious to hear how you see MOOCs making inroads into geographies without great access to higher education.

AA: Here, I can speak from the heart since I grew up in India. Some of my own experiences growing up shaped my own thinking and the thinking around what we are doing. Access to education for people in the developing world is a big part of what we want to do. In terms of that demographic, it turns out that the types of courses matter a lot. For example, the poverty course from Esther Duflo and Banerjee from MIT, it focuses on issues of poverty and development, that course gets a lot of students. So first of all is the type of courses, second of all the translations. There have been translations of the platform into many languages – Hindi, for example, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and so on. We’ve also created partnerships. For example, SocialEdu is a partnership with Facebook, the Government of Rwanda, Nokia, and Airtel, to provide mobile access to courses on smartphones. We’re doing these partnerships with Facebook and others to see if we can improve access in parts of the world where people need it the most.

LP: Another question that’s on my mind is about the link between MOOCs and future employment. I think it’s something that is very important to a lot of people who are taking these courses. What do you think about the connection between MOOCs and employment? Is there a pathway there?

AA: Absolutely. So at the end of the day if this is just a curiosity, well that’s fine, but we really want to help people. And finding jobs is one important area. In fact, we did a pilot about a year and a half ago where we tried to help about some of our students get jobs, and we could not place a single student. And the reason is that many HR departments didn’t understand the MOOC credential. Now things may have changed. There was a recent study done by RTI in which 70% of the employers surveyed indicated that they would look favorably on MOOCs mentioned in a resume of people that apply.

Now we’re working with organizations to help people find jobs. The most salient example is a partnership we did with a grassroots organization called LaunchCode, an experiment we called The St. Louis Experiment. They partnered with us with the thought that people can learn how to code, and a lot of companies need people who can do coding jobs, but without having a degree or a certificate HR departments weren’t looking at them. So we partnered with LaunchCode, and we got the CEOs of 100 St. Louis companies to sign up and agree to hire people with MOOC credentials. LaunchCode did a boot camp, and as part of that a large number of students took the edX CS50X Computer Science course from Harvard. Already this experiment has placed more than 100 people into jobs.

We have to make ground up change in the way people think, and we are doing it. The White House has gotten very interested in this, and they have encouraged us to work with LaunchCode to take this national. We’re starting with Miami next and will see where we go from there. So really, we’re doing a number of things that you would maybe not see from a for-profit startup. A lot of the efforts are simply things we believe we should do and there is no monetary benefit.

LP: You mentioned that when HR sees MOOCs on a resume, they still have a need to see a degree or some sort of certification. So I wonder, do you think that we will eventually see degrees made up entirely of MOOCs? Is that what’s coming next?

AA: Yes. I believe that will happen within the next 5 years. Actually, many of our university partners have expressed interest in doing something like this. There’s a lot of interest in making this happen, and I do believe it will happen.

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