Anant Agarwal, MIT professor and now 2U education leader, says it’s time for institutions to scale and deliver online.
“The only experiment that fails is one you didn’t do.”
This statement comes from one of the world’s greatest experimenters and innovators, Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX and Chief Open Education Officer of parent company 2U. As the leader of two tech giants that merged last year and as an MIT professor who has nurtured elite talent over the past 34 years, he knows firsthand the power of embracing new ideas and new ways of thinking.
edX has been an engine of fundamental change in digital learning for nearly a decade, becoming one of the most transformative forces in education as the pandemic struck, forcing millions of people online overnight. This shift led to an unforeseen introduction of virtual classrooms, micro-certifications, curriculum changes, and yes, the exploration of widespread partnerships between university leaders.
Not everyone is convinced, but Agarwal says they should be soon. “We’re seeing a seismic shift in learner preferences,” he says. “The time for excuses is over. I would encourage people to jump in and experiment and try it out.”
Maybe that number will change some minds: edX and 2U now have 40 million learners. They offer a range of services such as Online Campus Essentials for the 230 institutions they work with – including 19 of the top 20 universities in the world – with 3,600 programs on their free-to-degree platform. They expect a lot of growth and many more to jump on board as online learning adoption continues.
Agarwal says four trends will be hot for pedagogy and instruction in the next year, including increasing blended learning; more modular, stackable credentials such as boot camps, micro bachelor’s and micro master’s degrees; competency-based courses that get learners “ready on day one”; and learner-centred education. MIT and other institutions have already split some semester-long courses into two or three separate modules, and schools like Rice University are developing programs that think hybrid first.
More from UB: How micro-credentials are helping colleges master the moment
“What the pandemic and online learning showed us is that learners wanted flexibility, they wanted short courses, they wanted more skills,” says Agarwal. “For the first time, institutions found that both learners and teachers really liked it. If you break the course into shorter segments and teach two or three shorter courses, learners will love it. Learning orientation will be great. That is very radical.”
To learn more about the future of higher education, university business sat down with Agarwal to get his take on embracing digital learning.
Can you share your perspective on the last two years in higher education and the massive online shift that has taken place? Were there any silver linings? Are we perhaps in a better position than at the beginning of the pandemic?
The world was already moving in a certain direction of digitizing learning, applying technology, and applying computation to make it more efficient and scalable. Radically good things have happened in terms of access for learners. The pandemic hasn’t created new trends, but it has poured gasoline on existing trends. Almost all universities that had already started to digitize learning worked with organizations like edX and did quite well. They have been able to pivot and offer quality online learning to all of their learners. I can’t say that for all universities. We hear these horror stories – death by zoom, people sitting around and watching [lecturers] do exactly what they did in class. Those universities that invest in quality online learning can create much more engaging experiences.
At the end of the day we saw a huge interest in online learning. On the edX platform, we saw ten times more learners in April 2020 than a month earlier. It’s amazing how various studies show that from virtually 0% of faculty supporting online learning, more than half now agree that they want to teach courses fully online or in a blended form. Two-thirds of learners support online learning and hybrid learning options.
Faculty and students seem to welcome it, but what about college and university leaders?
We’re seeing a lot more interest from university leaders around the world. Three years ago you had to convince the university management that this is a good thing. Most of them had no idea what that was. I taught at MIT for 34 years, and we taught in a special way. But online learning is very different. Now there is a completely different mindset where university leaders are coming to us to form these partnerships knowing that edX can create economies of scale and economies of scale by promoting courses, content and degrees to learners around the world.
Has it been difficult for universities to embrace this digital transformation and create work paths and connections to serve employers? We still see many gaps in the labor market across a range of industries.
That has always been a challenge. What the world has shown us with the learner and employer focus is that we need to listen to employers and talk to them on a large scale. It is difficult for universities to do this themselves. I’m a big advocate of partnerships. 2U has an incredible career services network with a large roster of employers to work with. Why should every university need to create career services and links with employers? We need to start thinking about these partnerships, where the different organizations unbundle services and then find the best of their kind and create unified integrated solutions that learners and businesses can benefit from.
Can you share some anecdotes about how transformative online learning has been for students?
That’s the part I love to talk about. We have so many learners in edX and 2U based programs where they have incredible success as a result of micro undergraduate programs or boot camps. One student comes to mind – Courtney. She had high school, some college, but no degree. She continued to study on edX and that helped her get a job. We have another apprentice, Maggie, who used to work as a courier at Postmates. Through a partnership with edX, Postmates offered all of its couriers access to edX tutorials. She was able to continue her education and now works in the supply chain at Amazon. There are incredible stories of learners who have been either laid off or furloughed during the pandemic and have been able to acquire new skills and advance in their careers. I was chatting to an Uber driver and I said, “What are you doing?” He said this is my gig and I’m doing online courses on the side from this learning site called edX. That made my day.
And of course learning happens in so many different age groups
We have learners aged 4 to 98 on edX.
What do you see for the future of digital learning? Will these trends continue?
I think we have to be a little careful. Let’s not declare victory and say these trends are here. When I speak to university leaders around the world, I tell them this is our moment, we have captured the interests of faculty and learners. This is our time to create enduring digital transformation and enduring innovative change. Faculty leaders committed to this idea are very successful. But honestly, a lot of leaders are going back to the same old, same old, and that’s unfortunate.
I think we’re seeing more and more learners getting excited about smaller amounts of learning. The good news is that university faculties are much more inclined to offer blended online learning. Universities are trying more than ever to build these partnerships. I am very optimistic that more university leaders will move in this direction. In the past it was very difficult to bring about change, but this is happening in many universities. I’m excited about this seismic shift, which honestly would have taken 20 years, but because of the pandemic, I think it will happen in two years.
Is it too late for those who haven’t embraced this digitization yet to get on board?
Many institutions on edX did this before the pandemic. You could argue that they had already converted. But it’s never too late. The pandemic is now making it much easier for them to continue what they have been doing. They were all forced to teach online anyway.
How can we “eliminate the back row in higher education” as 2U has announced?
I think it’s an adoption. At this point we have invented enough digital technology, enough digital learning. We have courses for online teaching and learning. People can take these freely. There have been many innovations. What you need to do now is just do it. It’s the Nike ad. it is available It’s free. As a university leader, if you miss the moment, it would be very, very difficult to get it back. Lecturers and students are familiar with online learning. This is the time to get going and start those experiments. In education, time constants run in hundreds of years. what is two years jump in