Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently teamed up to form edX, a not-for-profit online education initiative that aims to teach millions worldwide and reinvent campus-based learning. Anant Agarwal, edX president, told Washington correspondent Ashish Kumar Sen in a freewheeling phone interview that he is confident this partnership will transform education. Excerpts:
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the edX model?
The idea is for edX to create an open source online learning platform on which we can offer courses to people around the world. Our vision is to educate a billion people. We also want to reinvent education on our campuses. We haven’t really had any huge innovations in education in centuries. Our aim is to bring computing technology to bear on learning. With the amazing progress in computing and Internet technologies, we believe that we can reach millions of people around the world who do not have access to a high-quality education. edX will be a creating a platform which will be open source, not for profit, and a portal for a website where universities will offer their courses. For example, mit courses will be offered as MITx and Harvard courses as HarvardX. Over time, other universities will also be joining us.
In what format will the courses be offered?
We are offering full courses, so think of this as complete online learning. We launched a course, ‘Circuits and Electronics’, in February and 1,20,000 students registered to take the course worldwide. India was the second-largest country in terms of people registered for the course. Students watch videos describing concepts, they do learning exercises which are interspersed with the videos, do an online interactive laboratory, have a discussion forum, have a collaboration wiki, get assessed instantly and get to see their grades online. When they complete the course, for an mit course, for example, the students will get an MITx certificate and they will also get a grade.
What does edX mean for the future of education?
Concepts like edX and online learning will transform education. This will completely change the world. I believe that people will move to online learning, both on campuses and worldwide. We have a real opportunity to be able to bring people around the world into our fold. Initially it will be higher education, and over time even Advanced Placement courses in high school, K through 12, we can cover all fields.
“MIT admits less than 10 per cent of those who apply, the IITs, about 1 per cent. A lot more people are capable of an MIT or IIT education.”
But is edX a substitute for classroom education, or does it supplement it?
It is both. When learners take an edX course, they can get a certificate and they will have a learning experience. It is a near-complete learning experience. One can imagine a world a few years from now where students take sequences of edX courses, and edX will give them a credential for some of these sequences of courses and one can imagine them building up their education just using edX online courses. We are also going to transform on-campus education, whereby we can augment these courses and make the campus experience even richer than it already is. On-campus learning will get completely revolutionised.
Is there a large demand for online education?
There is an insatiable demand for learning. There is a huge demand from students who are not able to get in because of the constraints of universities that can only admit a relatively small number of students. mit admits less than 10 per cent of the people who apply. If you look at the iits in India, in the year that I took (the test, it admitted) about 1 per cent. I imagine a lot more students are fully capable of an IIT education, or an mit education, or a Harvard education.
Certificates will be offered to students who excel, but will these be recognised when they go to look for a job?
We are making sure that the courses we offer at MITx and HarvardX are quintessential mit and Harvard courses. They are not watered down. They are not mit Lite or Harvard Lite. These are hard courses. These are the exact same courses, so the certificate will mean something.
We are talking to employers, and in polls that we have done, the indication we have received is that employers will be willing to grant interviews to students that have displayed very strong credentials in these online learning courses.
So is there equivalence between an mit degree and an MITx degree?
It is difficult to put them on par, so I really doubt that the two will become equivalent. An MITx certificate is not an mit degree. An mit degree, besides the coursework, involves a lot of experiences students have on campus. Time will tell as to how employers will treat MITx credentials.
“The courses in edX are essentially MIT and Harvard courses. They are not watered down. They are not MIT Lite or Harvard Lite.”
How do students qualify for these courses?
Anyone who has a laptop or computer or a tablet and an Internet connection can take the course. We are completely democratising education.
Critics say it is hard to eliminate cheating in online education.
In our first prototype course, the certificate we are giving out is what we call an honour system certificate. Students get a certificate that says we trust them to be honest and do the work themselves. But since we are not proctoring, people can take advantage of this system. In future offerings, we are also working with proctoring companies to create a proctored setting where we expect students to go to a testing centre.
Given the demand for high-quality education and the stiff competition to get into universities in India, how does edX seek to tap this market?
Even without any overt effort on our part, India had the second highest number of registrations (for the prototype course). Domestic US was No. 1, UK was No. 3 and Colombia No. 4. Indian students are English-speaking, technologically advanced, and there is widespread availability of the Internet, so it is very feasible for students in India to access the course material. We are also interested in working with universities where they screen the online course in the classroom and augment it locally with instructors who may hold tutorials, problem-solving sessions, lab sessions, etc. We are hearing about how difficult it is to get high-calibre faculty into the large number of universities in India. Clearly, the demand for an education far outstrips the supply and good faculty is one of the key constraints. So by making available these online courses, we can address in a substantial manner one of the big difficulties that India is facing in higher education.