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Micro master's is future of online learning: Anant Agarwal

Interview with Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT; CEO of edX

Anant Agarwal

Anjuli Bhargava 

Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT;  CEO of edX
Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT; CEO of edX

Anant Agarwal is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is also director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. At MIT for 28 years now, Agarwal left India post his degree at IIT-Chennai in 1982.

In 2012, Agarwal became the CEO of edX, the massive open online course provider by MIT and Harvard. He was in India last week to explain edX and MIT’s ideas to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others. He had met the PM the morning before this interview.

Agarwal spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on the genesis of edX, the future of modern education, how universities that don’t innovate may disappear over a period of time and how companies are changing the way they view the credentials their employees hold. Edited Excerpts:

Tell us a bit about how edX came up. The idea, how you went about it and why it was set up… the story behind it in a nutshell.

In 2011, my colleagues and I felt that technology had reached a point where one could teach people online in a way that has never been done before. People had done some online courses before but we felt we could use video gaming technology and apply it to learning. And create labs in various subjects – just like you play video games. One could create very engaging courses online.

Several of us at MIT (MIT president Rafael Reif, MIT executive vice president Israel Luiz, Gregory Morgan, head of legal) were brainstorming about this idea and decided to create MIT X. We didn’t know what to call it then.

We launched MIT X in 2012. I put a business plan together. We spoke to Harvard and between the two we invested US $ 60 million to start off. It is a start up but it is not for profit. So we didn’t want VC money.We get money from MIT, Harvard and other foundations – philanthropic.

Why X – like a variable?

Initially, we didn’t know what to call it so we called it MIT X. People seemed to like the name and thought we’d asked a PR firm to come up with it. After Harvard joined in, we changed the name to edX – the X was still there. Today I say X is the new i (like i-phone, i-pad and so on).

The way we work is that we partner with universities that offer content on edX and it gets used by students all over the world. The courses are free. My own course was the first one to be offered and it was taken by 1.5 lakh students in 162 countries.

We are over four years old now. We have grown to over 7 million students from 196 countries. We have over 7 lakh students from India too.

Do you personally interact with all these students? It would be impossible…

That’s interesting too. Initially, when my course went online, I was following it closely almost 24X7. One night at 1 a.m., a student in some country popped up with a question.

Even as I was thinking about the answer, another student in another country – came up with an answer. The answer wasn’t quite right but before I could come up with the right solution, a third student in yet another country had sent the correct answer. By 4 a.m., the students had a solution to the question without my intervention! It was fascinating to watch.

But now we have students who have topped some of the courses as “community teaching assistants” and they chip in.

Won’t there be some cannibalisation or loss of university jobs at some stage?

There will be some competition. But it need not replace the conventional on-campus model. You can take courses from your university on campus and you can take some courses from edX. You can do both and get a different perspective. It is a form of blended learning.

But it can also be synergistic. Teachers can mix online with their traditional teaching. The teacher can say he won’t lecture. The students should go watch the video online and turn the classroom into a discussion forum.This is called a flipped class.

Where are things headed ? People are beginning to question this very expensive American education and companies are beginning to question the value of higher degrees like a master’s, MBA…

Yes, all this should be questioned. Why should a person go to college for four years? Why at the age of 18? Why a master’s following a undergraduate degree? I see the world becoming more unbundled, more micro – in everything. Learning is life long.

As things stand, do you know that only 25 per cent of students in the US actually follow this model of going to college at 18 and finishing in four years ? Most of them take up a job after high school, some come back later, some join college and drop out. What I am saying it is already a much more fluid system and people are beginning to question the norm.

We have launched on edX a micro master’s. Why should you get a full master’s ? You can get micro credentials. Say you are doing a BA in Math. But you want to work as a computer programmer. You can take a micro master’s in programming from edX. By the time you have your BA in math, you can have your masters too and get a job in programming if you like.

These new micro credentials are just-in-time learning in the right field. We think that is the future. We think in the future the concept of a degree will be questioned too. Why do we need a four year degree ? Why does India need a three year degree – 95 per cent who earn the degree can’t be employed in any case.

How much credence will this hold ?

As we talk to employers we find they are very excited about micro masters. Let’s say they hire a student after a bachelor’s degree and in india studies have shown that 95% of the bachelor graduates are unemployable. Imagine now they can all do micro masters and learn the skills to make them employable. And at a fraction of the time and cost. You are already working in a company. It’s not easy to go back and get a master’s. We think micro masters will solve this problem.

Another thing companies are very worried about is upscaling. Technology and the world keeps changing…how do their employees keep pace. We think online education can help upskill their workforce. We are working with many of them globally.

But if everything is for free forever, how will it work?

The courses are free. You pay for the certificate or the credential. You have to pay US $ 50-100 depending on the course. And companies are increasingly beginning to recognize these micro credentials and will place a value on them.

What will this mean for university education in the future ? Isn’t this “apne per pe kulhadi marna” ?

If you look at Apple, it is a champion of “apne per pe kulhadi marna”. Very innovative organisations look at what is the right thing to do. Particularly as a non profit. Our university and its partners are saying this is the right thing to do.

We think universities will just get transformed. You still need the content and the course and the professors who provide them. What will be altered is the way it is delivered.

Today universities only give degrees. I think in the future they will give degrees and they will give micro credentials. Universities that refuse to innovate may suffer or die out. But the rest will thrive.

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First Published: Wed, April 20 2016. 00:11 IST