After the Hype, Do MOOC Ventures Like edX Still Matter? (CHE)

By Goldie Blumenstyk

Five years and 11 million students on, Anant Agarwal, chief executive of the nonprofit organization, says there is still plenty of innovation to come from the venture and its university partners: “We’re just getting started.”


GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I’m here today with Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX. Anant, thanks for joining us here at The Chronicle.

ANANT AGARWAL: Oh, my pleasure to be here.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: A lot of people have been hearing a lot about MOOCs over the last few years, the hype about MOOCs, the bust about MOOCs. But you guys keep chugging along. Obviously, in the MOOC environment, there are MOOCs that are for-profit, and edX remains very much a nonprofit organization. Philosophically and on the ground, what’s the difference between an edX and some of the commercial products that are out there right now?

ANANT AGARWAL: So we are the leading nonprofit MOOC provider. And right from when we started edX, we believe that, as we are transforming education and working with our university partners, it was very important to us that we created a nonprofit organization. A lot of decisions that we make would have been very different, had we been a for-profit that is VC-funded.


ANANT AGARWAL: So as an example, one of the very early decisions we made was giving away a platform to the whole world for free, where it’s like giving away your crown jewels. And it’s very hard to do that — near impossible to do that if you’re a for-profit because now you’re disenfranchising yourself. But as a nonprofit, you want to have the biggest impact, not necessarily the biggest ROI for investors. You can do things like that. So we give our platform away for free.

A second example is that on edX, we are still offering MOOCs, which are courses where people can do the whole learning for free. You may have to pay for a credential, but we still offer MOOCs, and virtually all our courses are MOOCs. Even for a MicroMasters and premium offerings, people can learn completely for free.

A lot of the for-profits have pivoted and put up paywalls in their programs. And edX pretty much has and will continue to offer free courses and programs. And as a nonprofit, that certainly reduces the revenue that you can generate. But we have a very long-term horizon.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: What is your long-term horizon? I know you were founded about five and a half years ago with about $60 million from MIT and Harvard, and gotten some other foundation money along the way. But do you have a time frame at which point you expect to consider yourselves self-sustaining?

ANANT AGARWAL: So we expect to get to sustainability by about 2020. And, you know, that will have been about nine years or thereabouts to become self-sustaining. But even after that, our goal as a mission-focused nonprofit, it will be not to maximize profits but rather maximize the impact and the good that we can do to the world. Work with the university partners to reimagine education, both on university campuses and online.

And, frankly, as you look at many of the MOOC providers that looked very similar five years ago, you can see some of the pivots happening as we went along from the for-profits.

And edX, you know, we’ve certainly stayed true to the mission, which is: Increase access for education for everybody. People can learn for free on edX. You know, our courses — even the courses in MicroMasters and premium offerings — are available completely for free for learners, where there’s graded assignments, videos, exams. All of that is available for free to learn. There is a fee for the certificate, but you can learn for free.

Many of the for-profits have had to pivot along the way because — you know, I’ve done five for-profit companies. And when you’re funded by investors, they’re looking for ROI. And as edX, as a nonprofit, our focus is on doing the maximum good, and, you know — and it’s about the mission.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One of the things that I find so interesting about this, MOOCs, is, people think of this as technology, but it strikes me that some of the most interesting innovations that have resulted from the MOOCs have nothing to do with technology at all. I’m thinking about your development of the MicroMasters. It’s kind of a different approach to getting degrees. Or even just some of the experimentation that’s going on on the MOOC platform. Can you tell me just a little bit about one of the more interesting innovations that you’ve seen coming out of this MOOC that’s not really a tech thing?

ANANT AGARWAL: Sure. And, of course, to be sure, we have a lot of innovation in technology in order to be able to offer credit-grade MOOCs, like with a MicroMasters and our Global Freshman Academy. At the same time —

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So a credit-grade MOOC means someone’s — it has to have a certain level of — you have to have some infrastructure behind it or something, right?

ANANT AGARWAL: Absolutely. A credit-grade MOOC is one where — we’ve really had to up the quality and the rigor of assessments, and also the integrity of the whole program, in order to have a credit-grade MOOC. So for example, in terms of quality, it’s not just about multiple choice. We have very rich assessment types like drag-and-drop, image responses, you know. Sophisticated tests. You know, universities would be loath to offer credit for these courses if all you had was multiple choice.

And, similarly, we’ve had to do a lot of work over the past three years in integrity — things like integrating virtual proctoring into the platform, integrating hand grading, in addition to peer grading. Universities are uncomfortable giving credit for English for essays when they are peer graded. So be able to hand grade essays for students that are taking it for credit and integrated with the students doing it for peer grading.

And there’s also things like randomized problem banks, timed exams, exams with different visibilities. A lot of features for integrity that are very critical for credit-grade MOOCs. And we’ve done all of that through technology on edX. And it’s really — I call this MOOC 2.0, where our platform today is not your grandfather’s MOOC platform from five years ago.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: And what about — I’m thinking sort of broadly — a lot of the focus now on MOOCs has been, both at edX and at some of the other providers, has been kind of a career-focused orientation. Your MicroMasters program has got a career-oriented approach, even though it can lead to a degree.

But I’m just still thinking, are there some things, particularly at edX, that you could be doing that really would change education more broadly — do something big for the liberal arts or for something other that’s really fundamental to higher education?

ANANT AGARWAL: So one of the big innovations, really, at edX has not been technology-focused. It has to do with policy and new credentials. And working with MIT initially, the innovation came out of MIT on the MicroMasters, where we’ve had to work with MIT, with the accreditation agencies that accredit MIT’s degree programs and so on to come up with the MicroMasters.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: But does that really — that doesn’t help educate the world, which I think was the big vision and maybe too much of the hype. But that was sort of the hype in the beginning of this — that the MOOCs were going to educate the world in a way that other platforms and other institutions couldn’t.

ANANT AGARWAL: But even if you look at a MicroMasters — let’s take the supply-chain MicroMasters from MIT. They admit 30 students on campus for a master’s degree. On edX, there are about 40,000 students taking the supply-chain MicroMasters for free. About 12 percent to 13 percent of them are signing up for the verified certificate and the credit track. And so several thousand students are going on the credit track, and that is significantly bigger than the 30 students on campus. So, in fact, it is two orders of magnitude bigger. And if you look at the students learning for free, that is three orders of magnitude bigger. So I still think that the vision of MOOCs and being able to educate large numbers of people scalably at very low marginal cost is still true.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: You think that’s a fundamental advantage?

ANANT AGARWAL: I think it is. Because, you know, if you give up on that, in some sense, there’s nothing really new then. Because online degree programs have been around for 20 or 30 years. It’s nothing new. Online degree programs that cost $20,000, $30,000, $40,000 are not new. And those that have a rigorous admissions process and take in a few students — that’s not very different from what you do on campus.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So, in effect, the price point is the real revolution here?

ANANT AGARWAL: I think it’s both scale and efficiency. I think both matter. So as an example, our stacked degree program that we launched with Georgia Tech — the OMA, the online master’s in analytics on edX is a stacked degree program. There’s a MicroMasters, which you can learn for free. And for 1,500 bucks, you get a MicroMasters. And the whole degree program can be had for under $10,000.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I’m still sitting here thinking, though, how does that help the world’s democracies? Around the world, how does — what does that really do for the rest of the world, other than those students who took those MicroMasters?

ANANT AGARWAL: Well, for the rest of world, to me, learning is a human right. And if we can help people learn — for a lot of people, they can learn analytics, learn AI. We have 1,400 courses on edX, and we’re just getting started. It’s only five years. And so we have 11 million students who’ve taken 40 million courses on edX. And this movement is growing exponentially. And people are learning for free in the millions. And so, has it educated the world? No. But give us time.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: All right. Well, great. Thanks very much for coming by.

ANANT AGARWAL: Well, thank you. My pleasure.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at