21/12/2015 3:15 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

'India Represents The Second Highest Enrollments in Our Courses': EdX CEO Anant Agarwal

Founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, edX is a leading online learning destination and massive open online course (MOOC) provider. In an exclusive interview with Dipin Damodharan, its chief executive officer Anant Agarwal speaks on online education and blended learning, the future of MOOCs and the current landscape of e-learning in India

MOOCs haven't quite lived up to their promise, or that's what Stanford professors John Mitchell, Candace Thille and Mitchell Stevens wrote recently. What's your take on this?

We see MOOCs as the great democratiser and believe that in the future, economics, social status, gender or geography will not determine a student's access to education or opportunity for success. However, I do believe that online learning and MOOCs have more room for improvement and even more to do before we truly spread quality education to all around the world. But the process has definitely started. With online learning, we are capturing amazing amounts of data about students and how they learn. Now, we have the opportunity to mine the information to help us improve learning both online and on campus. These insights into how people learn are one of the great aspects of online learning as they will help us improve the future of education for all.

"There is a lot of talent in India, but often there are not enough slots for qualified students in colleges, and not enough financial aid... EdX changes all of that..."

Currently, edX has more than 6 million students from every country around the world, with more than 19 million course enrollments. This reveals the huge appetite for high-quality, rigorous online courses. Our learners' response helps drive our commitment to providing online education for anyone, anywhere with a desire to learn. However, MOOCs are still an emerging field, and we know that much research remains to be done about what works best as we seek new, innovative ways to teach and learn online and on campus. We look forward to ongoing debate and experimentation around the future of education, both now and in the years to come.

Do you still think online learning will be the cure-all that many educators hope for?

Online education can certainly play a stronger role working in tandem with the education system in the country and globally, and in solving problems for learners and educators. It has innumerable advantages. Access is one of them, but much more than that, it is about the improvement in the quality of education, which influences both the campus and beyond. Take, for example, the experience of going to class, and missing something or losing the professor after the first five minutes. One would be scrambling to keep up. A lecture is one-size-fits-all, but with online learning, students can pause and rewind videos multiple times until they can do an exercise. This leads them to what's known as mastery-based learning, where you keep watching the video until you master the material.

In addition to connecting people to each other and establishing a global learning base, online education is also starting to find its way on campus, as universities are adopting what's known as a blended learning model. In a blended learning environment, students receive their lectures by video, so they can spend class time doing hands-on work.

Another positive evidence of MOOCs working in tandem with the education system in the country, and contributing to it, is the massive amount of data they produce on how people learn best. EdX has found, for instance, that the longer a video lecture runs, the less time students spend watching it. So if a video lasts 40 minutes, students may only watch it for two. If it's six minutes long, they'll watch the whole thing. Such insight questions the very format of the traditional education system, which often involves a professor lecturing on a topic for an hour or more. It reveals learners want to learn in bite-sized chunks. Thus, online education and MOOCs allow us to learn about learning, and enhance teaching and learning both on campus and online.


Recently, edX overtook Coursera in number of Ivy League partners. How do you look at this as the CEO? Is it because a not-for-profit organisation is more attractive for institutions?

Our mission as a non-profit is to democratise education and make quality education available to all around the world, and edX's status as a non-profit makes it particularly attractive to universities.

What distinguishes edX is our open-source platform and our non-profit mission. EdX's goal is larger than bringing free education to the world. We want to enable educational experts to experiment with how best to teach online. Many professors teaching MOOCs are interested not just in teaching their course, but in the studying the process of online learning. They want to try out new teaching techniques and need a platform that will let them and provide insights for research.

In June 2013, we made our platform open source, creating a collaborative environment where contributors worldwide work with us to develop enhancements and new features.

What's your take on the current landscape of online learning in India?

Based on current participation in edX courses, the education sector in India is clearly innovative and passionate, making for a very good outlook indeed. Universities in India are progressive and embrace the demand for online learning that edX sees from all ages and walks of life world-wide.

"[E]dX plans to continue growing our newly expanded membership with Indian educational institutions, foundations, NGOs and businesses to offer more free quality education to online learners in India and worldwide."

There is a lot of talent in India, but often there are not enough slots for qualified students in colleges, and not enough financial aid for everyone who needs it. EdX changes all of that by offering top courses from the top universities in the world to anyone and everyone, regardless of economics, gender, or geography. This presents a big opportunity and a big market for Indian learners.

The response to edX from India has been overwhelming support and enthusiasm. India consistently represents the second highest enrollments in edX courses (behind the US).

As of October 2015, approximately 70% of our students come from outside of the US. India constitutes 10% of the total learning population on edX, i.e. 5,98,000 users, making India the second largest contributor of learners on edX after the US.

We have tied-up with IIT Bombay for some of their regular courses to lakhs of students across the nation, and to others globally. In fact, considering the brilliant feedback and the enormous registrations that edX had received for those courses the first time, IIT-B has relaunched them on edX under the self-paced category so that anyone can join and learn regardless of their busy schedules or time constraints.

IIM Bangalore joined us as our first India B-school member, and we are very happy to deliver its high-quality MOOCs to our learner community. With edX, IIMB is embracing and leveraging technology to further increase access to education and create social impact.

The Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, an all-India Institute for higher education, also joined edX as a contributing member. Its commitment to cutting-edge technology and innovation directly aligns with edX's mission to increase access to education for students worldwide using online learning and technology, while also improving on-campus education and gaining greater insights into how students learn.

So, edX plans to continue growing our newly expanded membership with Indian educational institutions, foundations, NGOs and businesses to offer more free quality education to online learners in India and worldwide.