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“I Want to Teach Engineering to a Billion”: Anant Agarwal, President of EdX (Part 1)

Posted on Thursday, Feb 14th 2013

Professor Anant Agarwal was my graduate advisor at MIT in the mid-nineties. In Anant, I found a kindred entrepreneurial spirit, someone who encouraged me to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams, even if that meant quitting the PhD program at MIT. Over the past 20 years, both of us have pursued the path of serial entrepreneurs. In this story, I speak with Anant about his latest venture, EdX, a massively online open courseware (MOOC) project that is backed by MIT and Harvard to the tune of $60 million.

Sramana: Anant, the last time we spoke you were doing a big project with Tilera that involved multi-core computing. Now you are running EdX. What prompted the shift?

Anant Agarwal: I have been a serial entrepreneur all of my life. I started by running a chicken farm at my home in Bangalore when I was 12 years old. This time around I am doing a social entrepreneurial program. I am the president of EdX, which is a startup company in Cambridge. It looks and feels like a startup in every way. The tempo is fast, the pace of innovation is fast, and we have highly driven people working here.

Sramana: Is this the first time you have asked MIT to back the genesis of an idea? What was the background of the project? I understand that MIT is backing it.

Anant Agarwal: A few of us at MIT had been discussing online learning. We felt that we really wanted to make sure that education was in the hands of a nonprofit. Our vision was to create an open source platform which would allow the entire community to participate in the platform’s development.

We initially launched MITX where we offered MIT classes online via the platform. We launched that as a nonprofit open source platform, and we immediately had a huge outpouring of support and partnership requests from other universities. Thus far, 250 universities have approached us and asked us to open up the platform beyond MIT. We had a lot of discussions with Harvard, and when they came in we changed the name to EdX in May of 2012.

Harvard and MIT came to EdX with a total of $60 million in commitments. A number of other universities have since joined us as well. The University of Texas system joined, with all 15 of its universities. Georgetown and Berkeley [of the University of California system] have joined as well. We will be announcing several international partners in a few weeks.

Sramana: Could you summarize the architecture? How are you delivering value, and how are people consuming value?

Anant Agarwal: EdX has built a portal, EdX.org, which has an education platform behind the portal. Learners around the world can log in, register for courses, and take courses that are offered by partner institutions. Our partner institutions create courses using EdX tools and offer those courses directly on EdX.org.

All the courses have the same rigor as campus classes. The value proposition for students around the world is that they get access to high-quality education that they would not otherwise have had access to. The value proposition for universities is that they get to reach a much larger number of students. Our universities often admit fewer than 10% of the applicants. If they could admit more they would, and they saw EdX as an opportunity to reach a much larger number of students.

At EdX we have a strong desire to care for on-campus learning as well. Our campus universities are looking to dramatically improve the quality of online education as a means to enhance the on-campus student experience.

This segment is part 1 in the series : "I Want to Teach Engineering to a Billion": Anant Agarwal, President of EdX
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