Learn in modules,and then stack them up: Anant Agarwal, Founder & CEO, edX

Right now more people have access to internet connectivity than to a bricks-and-mortar school and edtech companies can help democratise education

Learn in modules,and then stack them up: Anant Agarwal, Founder & CEO, edX
Anant Agarwal, , Founder & CEO, edX (Potrait By Shyam Kumar Prasad)

Anant Agarwal, the founder & CEO of edX— the massive open online course (MOOC) provider—says edtech has become incredibly hot post-Covid-19.“ The world has gone from working live to working remotely, and from studying live to learning remotely, ”he says. In fact, the number of newly-registered learners who came on the edX platform in 2020 grew by 561 % over 2019. In an interview with FE’s Vikram Chaudhary, he adds that while the pandemic did not create new behaviours, it accelerated certain existing trends, and made the world more open to change. Excerpts:

What kind of changes did you observe at the edX platform in the months following the lockdown?

In April 2020 alone, we added 5million new registered learners on our platform, which was greater than the total number of learners in all of 2019. The number of new learners who came on the edX platform last year grew by 561% over the previous year. About 40% came to learn something new, they had more time; 25% came to learn a new skill to become more proficient at work and particularly to learn skills that would be pandemic-proof;10% were those who had been laid-off or on furlough, and they came to upskill, and another 10% were college-going students.

The pandemic brought the digital divide to the forefront, especially in places such as India. In which all ways can edtech companies help plug that digital divide?

Right now more people have access to internet connectivity than to a bricks-and-mortar school. Edtech companies can help democratise education. To get into a top college in India, you either have to be very bright or from a relatively well-off family. Not having access to a good college is a bigger problem than not having access to a device. At edX, we have 4 million learners from India and they can learn for free or by paying a small amount they can signup for certifications. We have also made the edX Online Campus free for colleges.

IIM Bangalore offers 40-odd courses on edX. Can MOOCs give Indian universities a bigger global presence?

Both IIM Bangalore and IIT Bombay are partners of edX. There are over 1.6 million enrolments in IIMBx(IIMB’s digital learning arm) courses, and over 847,000 enrolments in IIT Bombay X (IITB’s online platform) courses, taken by people from all over the world. IIMB was one of our first partners to offer a Micro Masters programme, which was our first innovative credential that broke the Master’s degree into modular chunks. Building on the success of the Micro Masters, with the support of the Yidan Prize Foundation, we launched Micro Bachelors a year ago. We now offer eight of these programmes that fit into our vision of modular, stackable education that builds real career skills.

Are ‘modular learning’ and ‘stackable learning the future of education?

Imagine you are 30 years old and working, so being able to find time and money for a two-year MBA may be difficult. But pursuing a course such as the Micro Masters from IIMB that is available in modules (you can complete at your own pace) is easy. In fact, many people may not even need to learn everything that is taught in a two-year MBA—fort hem, learning a component is also enough. Such modular programmes are free and for about $2,000 you can earn certification as well. This cost is a fraction of what you may have to pay if you study on-campus. And MicroMasters pays—as many as 91% of those who earned Micro Masters have told us they saw career enhancement in terms of salary and promotion.

And what is stackable learning’?

It means you can take modules at your own pace and stack these up to get a degree.

MOOCs have very low completion rates…

Completion rate should not be used as a metric for MOOCs.When I was in India I used to read the Indian Express newspaper every day. But I did not read it from cover to cover, so my ‘completion rate ’wasn’t high, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t benefit by reading it.  A better metric for MOOCs should be are people learning, are they getting value, what kind of certifications are there, and so on. We also have edX for Business, where over 1,000 companies use our courses for their employees, including the SBI and TechMahindra, where the completion rate is 79%. Learners who have signed up for a verified certificate on edX, their completion rate is as high as 60%. Many courses, such as online executive education, don’t have a free’ option.

Is the fee learners pay divided between edX and course providers? Is there a ratio?

We are anon-profit and the fees learners pay help fund the work we do. About 55% of the fee goes to university partners because they created the courses, and the remainder goes to edX for our expenses.

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