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Education to Scale: Anant Agarwal's Story


A native of India, Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and MIT Professor, recalls his primary education not for what he learned but the environment with which he learned in – a large room with many desks with more than 60 students and a teacher giving lessons from a chalkboard. Agarwal did most of his formal education in India, before coming to the U.S. to earn his master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford University. But, it was the in-the-box learning environment that would later serve as his inspiration and design of MOOCs.

“Innovation in education has been tragically slower, if any at all, than in communication, health care or transportation and pretty much every other field,” said Agarwal. “The last big innovations in education were the printing press and blackboards. But our children have completely changed. They are more tech-savvy and learn in various formats and environments.”

Agarwal first became interested in ed tech in the early 2000s when he saw a huge challenge in teaching online labs while a professor at MIT. His goal was to teach an entire circuit course online. He had put his circuit course materials on MIT’s OpenCourseware site, but labs and interactivity were a challenge. With undergraduate support, Agarwal built an online circuits laboratory simulation site called “websim,” and opened it up to the world for free. Shortly after, a couple hundred would come and do online simulation labs every day.

Creation of Massive Open Online Courses

In 2011, Agarwal and several of his MIT colleagues were brainstorming how to use virtual gaming technology, online social interaction and certification and apply it to learning, thereby taking free OpenCourseware to the next level. This led to the launch of MITX in late 2011 and a business plan. Soon thereafter, Harvard teamed up with MIT, and edX, the largest nonprofit, open source MOOC provider in the world, was born. Agarwal and his colleagues were the first to teach an edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT. Today, edX has more than eight million users from every country in the world.

“MOOCs will never replace traditional education,” said Agarwal. “I believe that with technology, traditional education will change. Campus education will not look the same ten years from now. MOOCs and online education will blend into campus education, and the blended model will become the new porous university, which gives me great hope for the future of education.”

Agarwal has founded or co-founded a number of other companies, including Virtual Machine Works Inc., InCert Software, Determina Inc., and Tilera Corporation. He also served as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.

The Evolution of edX

With more online learners come more opportunities.

In 2015, edX partnered with Arizona State University to create the Global Freshman Academy (GFA), a first-of-its-kind collaboration that offers full university freshman-level courses for credit. Students can earn 31 college credits – more than a freshman year’s worth of education – for just $6,000, all online and at their own pace. This innovative program decreases financial barriers and opens doors and possibilities to those who had either given up hope or thought it wasn’t possible to earn a college degree from a world-renowned university like ASU.

“Through GFA, we are unbundling the clock for learners,” said Agarwal. “It’s a pathway to a new way of learning and earning a college degree.”

In February 2016, edX partnered with Kiron, a nonprofit organization focused on educating refugees, to provide free, verified certificates with Kiron university partners giving refugee learners up to two years of campus credits for those courses.

Additionally, edX offers a MicroMasters program in Supply Chain Management from MIT, where students can complete master-level courses for free or earn a credential for a fraction of the cost of a full graduate program.

“In India, 95 percent of those who earn a college degree aren’t employable,” said Agarwal. “They can complete a MicroMasters and learn the skills to make them employable, and at a fraction of the time and cost. We feel the MicroMasters will solve this problem.”

To learn more about Anant Agarwal and why MOOCs still matter, watch his 2014 TED Talk: