Forbes Education Technology Innovation Series: Anant Argawal, edX

January 20, 2014
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For The Largest Not-For-Profit MOOC, edX, Experimentation Is The Path To Innovation

by Peter High, published on


MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Anant Agarwal has personified the educator-entrepreneur, as he has had a foot in academe and a foot in new ventures for more than a decade. He has led CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, just as he was a founder of Tilera Corporation, which created the Tile multicore processor. He led the development of Raw, an early tiled multicore processor, Sparcle, an early multi-threaded microprocessor, and Alewife, a scalable multiprocessor. He also led the VirtualWires project at MIT and was the founder of Virtual Machine Works. His start-ups have largely been focused on his areas of research and areas of interest, but he had not focused on the education space itself until late 2011.

It was at that point that Agarwal taught what would become MITX’s first massive open online course (MOOC) on circuits and electronics, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries. This overwhelming response showed the promise of having his academic and his entrepreneurial pursuits coincide. Agarwal developed a partnership between MIT and nearby Harvard to establish edX. Unlike rivals Coursera and Udacity, edX is a not-for-profit. Therefore, when Agarwal thinks about the competitive landscape among the MOOCs, his perspective is “the more the merrier.”  In fact, in June of last year, edX became open sourced, and the source code, OpenedX, has led to interesting collaborations with Google, Stanford University, and even with countries such as France and China.

I spoke with Agarwal multiple times in recent months to ask him how edX is evolving, and what he foresees for the future of edX and for the academic institutions that they draw from.

(To hear an extended audio interview with Anant Agarwal, please visit this link. This is the seventh article in the Education Technology Innovation series. To read past interviews including interviews with the CEOs of Udacity, Coursera, and Khan Academy, please visit this link. To read future articles in the series, click the “Follow” link above.)

Peter High: As edX enters its third year in existence, what key lessons have you drawn thus far?

Anant Argawal: The power of edX and of MOOCs more generally is to democratize education. People want to learn no matter their circumstance or their age, and the experience of our students shows definitively that this is the case. We have many people who are in the workforce who use edX to develop new skills to employ in their jobs. Therefore, we are thinking more broadly.

A related example is our partnership with global steel manufacturer Tenaris. Through their adoption of the Open edX platform, Tenaris will enhance their existing training programs delivered through Tenaris University to nearly 27,000 employees worldwide. We have established a comparable relationship with the IMF.

We also have announced a partnership with Davidson College and the College Board to host Advanced Placement (AP) course modules for high school students, as well. So what began as university-centric idea is migrating to the pre and post university settings.

Additional topics covered in the article include:

  • Were there any misgivings, especially in the early stage, about the extent to which this might cannibalize the existing offerings? Naturally these courses do not replicate the experience of being on MIT’s, Harvard’s, Berkeley’s, McGill’s, or Georgetown’s campuses, but at the same time, it is access to some of the professors that make those universities famous. Was the possibility considered that this was a something that was cannibalizing the value of these universities’ educations?
  • How does edX change the educational experience for students who were on those campuses? For instance, for your MIT students’ part of this is access to materials and to university professors who are not at MIT but are part of edX. I assume also that part of the value is a foundation that is laid through the use of edX’s material that then can be built upon through the classroom setting. Is that a fair synopsis or at least a portion of the value intended?
  • How do you foresee this changing the experience for professors themselves? As a professor, how has it changed the way in which you prepare for classes?
  •  Are there certain kinds of courses, or are there certain kinds of professors for that matter that seem to be particularly well received on edX? Are there topics that suffer when transformed onto that platform?
  • Your company is very data driven, as you have noted. What metrics do you monitor to gauge the success of edX?

To read the full article, please visit

To explore other Education Technology Innovation Series articles, please click here.

To explore the Technovation Column library, please click here.

To listen to a Forum on World Class IT podcast interview with Anant, click here.

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