With EdX, 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.”


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