School’s Out, Forever

A new online education program from Harvard and MIT is poised to transform what it means to go to college.

The question on everyone’s mind is whether edX will kill off the traditional university.

The answer: maybe.

MIT and Harvard, naturally, believe edX will be used to supplement, not replace, the traditional college education. The schools, by the way, were joined by the University of California-Berkeley in July, and they continue to look for additional partners.

Agarwal is hopeful that edX can “lift all boats.” Community colleges, for instance, could adopt the curriculum and “flip” the classroom, meaning students would learn the edX materials online and spend class time doing homework and asking questions. This way, he says, teachers could spend their valuable time working directly with students instead of teaching boilerplate materials to everyone at the same time. This idea is gaining momentum. In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeking to develop the “flipped classroom” model, gave edX a $1 million grant to partner with an institution that educates low-income students.

Agarwal also wants to team up with state governments. He’d like to give welfare recipients additional benefits for taking free edX classes. In exchange, they would learn skills that could help them enter the workforce.

For now, no one sees colleges disappearing, since many students will continue to value the on-campus experience. That means the top 200 or so schools should be fine. Beyond those institutions, though, asking people to spend $120,000 on a degree could become difficult. “I think if you move into the middle tier, those schools are in deep threat,” says Horn of the Innosight Institute. “I don’t think the economics will make sense for many people when the knowledge they need to get a job is available for free online.”

EdX may also be an excellent tool for midcareer students using the online classes to build their credentials for a promotion, or for people just seeking to sate their intellectual curiosity. “I personally don’t think that universities should pretend the virtual class is going to be the same as the physical experience,” says Sal Khan, a former MIT and Harvard student who founded Khan Academy, which offers short online tutorials on everything from physics to art history. “I think the virtual can be better in some dimensions and the physical one will be far better in others.”

This shift to self-paced learning in the online environment seems likely to transform the entire way universities think about learning. “Honestly, the way higher ed is shaped right now makes no sense,” Horn says. “Why we move someone along when they haven’t mastered the previous concept and think they’ll be successful in the next one is crazy. It shouldn’t be about the grade, but whether you learn it.” Agarwal concurs, and hopes edX will play a role in democratizing education and altering the entire notion of traditional degrees. “I think we can question whether degrees are antediluvian,” he says. “Online learning has flexibility. Why not master courses in energy, writing, communications, and engineering and get a credential?”

In July, edX announced it would begin offering seven online courses—including introduction to computer science, artificial intelligence, and circuits and electronics—from MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley.

The idea of competency is already sparking interest from forward-thinking employers. This past May, technology entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote on his blog: “As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper.”

Khan agrees. He says his company is always looking for innovative thinkers, whether or not they have a college diploma. “Four-year degrees already have less value to employers,” he says. “They don’t differentiate you or signal a whole lot. A physical university experience is invaluable for making friends, but I think it’s a luxury. Backpacking through Europe is also a mind-expanding experience, but you don’t need to do it to get a job.”


Check out more of our Boston’s Best Schools 2012 coverage.


  • Marissa

    Startups like GatherEducation, which is based in Boston, have developed platforms that promote student engagement and mimic the face to face classroom. While online learning might not replace the traditional classroom, there is no reason it should be viewed as an inferior experience.

  • Tchad Rogers

    I wonder how Cuban, Khan, and other employers willing to fill roles with non-degree holding individuals filter their job applications. I agree with the assertion that ability maters more than a degree, but what credible signals can non-degree holding, entry-level applicants include on a resume? I would like to see realistic, actionable recommendations for employers who need to filter through hundreds of applications to fill a few positions, and how to do that without at least partially considering the educational background of applicants. Like it or not, a candidate with a degree from a top-school is almost always more impressive than a better-qualified degreeless candidate (on paper) because assessing that the latter is better-qualified is incredibly difficult to do based on a couple of sheets of paper. Most of the time, I would argue, the latter candidate never even gets the chance to demonstrate ability, because they are not interviewed.

    • anoncambridge

      I disagree — I am a prospective employer so am taking an edx class myself (the biostatistics class). It’s the ‘real deal’. I’m less impressed with fancy schools than with actual difficult coursework (from at least a halfway-decent school). Too many grade-inflated test takers that just don’t cut it. I need people who can think and then who can ‘do’.

  • SirenoftheSea

    Back when I attended a community college part-time while working full time and worked my way up to a management position in my industry, the college grads hired off the campus at job fairs by my huge corporation often came in with a lack of the basics. Many could not write a sentence let alone a paragraph. Everyone wants the “college experience” and to be “college-educated” but many didn’t crack a book their entire lives and will need to have someone else write their essays or will buy them on line. Education is cheapened while being even more expensive by sending everyone ( and just the ones who can afford it but are not college material) to college. In some countries there is a track for training in trades and one for college, in most cases they have the right idea. I love that these courses will be available from these prestigious schools. The next step should be farm systems for all major league sports and schools only being able to give scholarships to athletes who could actually qualify based on their scholarship not just their athleticism. We have turned our colleges into a training ground for the NFL and NBA and the cheating that goes with that atmosphere.


    Billion people. How can this be done.

    In the Digital world. Infinity is the rule.

    One Digital copy can be reproduced to Millions/Billions copies.

    Beatles. Elvis. Michael Jackson. We can listen to their music online.

    There is NO reason we cannot download the lectures or class Notes or class Homework.

    Apple ceo steve jobs: Richest man in cemetary.

    Professor: smartest professor in cemetary.

    Give it All away. None of us can take it to the cemetary.

    No one should the No 1 professor at the cemetary.

    Give it All away. World will be better place. No one can take anything to the cemetary with them.

  • writing services reviews

    That kind of class is really great. They can be able to discuss and do things perfectly easy and handy. Technologies gives its power that make things easier and it’s good that it was being applied in education.

  • Nabila Naorin

    It does not matter if 4.6% students have passed a course.. the thing is some of these students may not even taken this kind of high standard course in their life without edx’s curriculum because it costs a lot of money in real world.. i think it is a great initiative and can transform the way underprivileged people study