edX: The future of higher education?

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a massive open online course provider, sat down with EdScoop at SXSWedu to talk about how technology is changing higher education.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – The future of college rests in your fingertips.

That’s what Anant Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks. Agarwal is the CEO of edX, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider that launched in 2011 to offer free college-level courses for students across the world.

Founded by MIT and Harvard with a $60 million investment, edX recently announced a new partnership with Arizona State University to offer freshman-year courses on the online platform by the fall. After completing the courses, students can receive a transcript from ASU (and pay edX a fee) that shows they earned sufficient credits to transfer to another program or institution.

Agarwal sat down with EdScoop at SXSWedu for an interview about the unconventional venture, how colleges might benefit, and whether this represents the future of education.


EdScoop: What exactly is edX?

Anant Agarwal: edX is a major nonprofit MOOC provider. It’s the largest and only nonprofit MOOC provider. We are applying technology to education and seeing how we can completely transform education through technology. Through our destination,, we partner with the world’s top universities – MIT, Harvard – who offer great courses. Anyone from all over the world can take these programs and learn for free We have over 7 million students from about 200 countries.

ES: So it’s a virtual platform that students can use to take schools’ courses?

AA: We have about 100 university partners. These partners offer courses and programs completely online at edX. We have a software technology and platform where people can come and take courses. Just like you can shop on Amazon, you can go on edX. At this point, our courses are free and our business model is that if you want to earn a credential, you have to pay a fee.

ES: Who do the students pay for course credit, the school or edX?


AA: The student pays edX. Let’s say you want to learn about the science of happiness, or computer science, or nutrition. You can search for the course you want and sign up. We also have a mobile app works for Android and iPhone.

ES: Is edX considered an alternative to higher education?

AA: It can be an alternative or augmentation. A lot of students are already going to college, and they can take programs on edX to augment what they’re learning on campus. edX is the only MOOC provider giving credit for courses.

Traditionally, you go to a university to get credit. You can study on edX and take courses online [for free, but now students can earn credits as well].

For example, Arizona State University launched an entire freshman year on edX. The first year of undergraduate general education is free. But if you pass courses, you can pay $600 per course and you can get credit at ASU. So that was a really radical innovation that showed how, for the first time, you can take MOOC courses and then convert them into campus credit. So [we’re] creating that pathway, that bridge to online and on campus.


Read what other educators and IT leaders shared at SXSWedu — exclusive coverage from EdScoop.

If you’re a student in Alaska and say, ‘I want to take courses online through ASU,’ once you pass a course you pay edX $600 and you get a credit from ASU. If you apply to the University of Alaska, many credits will be able to transfer from ASU. You can accumulate credit and then join any university you want. It’s a very revolutionary model.

ES: But what about traditional method of applying and qualifying for college? Taking entrance exams?

AA: The beauty of this is, education is a right. Why should we judge the quality of an education based on how many people we exclude? One reason we have admissions criteria is because a campus that can only support maybe 10,000 students. It can’t support a million students. So they have an admissions, but online, if I can support a million students, why have admissions? Anyone can do it.

ES: How does this benefit colleges? There is no financial gain for them.


AA: Most of our university partners are nonprofits. They’re not in it for the money.

ES: Many people would disagree with that and say colleges are money-making machines.

AA: They’re money-losing machines. What’s in it for them is, this is innovation. If you look at Apple, it has innovated consistently. Apple had the iPod, but then they came out with the iPhone. Why? It ate into iPod sales. They had great iPods. Why did Apple come up with the phone?

Innovative companies are constantly innovating and offering better products to people. So innovative universities like ASU are offering an innovative new product, because with technology we can offer those products, and a lot more people can now access them.

ES: Do you have any students who take their entire university education online?


AA: The credit model [with ASU] just began about 8 months ago. We started off allowing students to take freshman year, but over time, we’ll increase to more and more. They’ll be able to complete more and more online courses without admissions.

ES: Do you see this as the future of higher education?

AA: I think this is the future of education in that we’re creating a pathway that is synergistic with university pathways. You can imagine students doing some work online, then come on campus for the campus experience, spend two years on campus, then going and getting a job. Maybe doing career-focused courses while they have a job. So you can go back and forth, and credit is the currency that binds the two together.

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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