EdX Inches Toward 1 Billion Students


Ever since our September profile of edX, the online education program created by MIT and Harvard that aspires to educate the masses for free, there’s been one burning question on my mind: How many people are actually signing up?

Last spring, MITx offered a test-pilot class on electrical circuits, and an astounding 154,763 individuals signed up for the course. Surely, that was a sign of good things to come. When students started to register for edX’s classes this fall, I expected a virtual stampede. After all, edX’s goal is to educate one billion people. One. Billion. People.

I’ve been pestering edX to let me in on the enrollment numbers for the past few weeks, but was met with nothing but a whole lot of silence. EdX spokeswoman Amanda Keane finally told me on Thursday that they simply didn’t want to release the numbers until all of the fall classes went live. And to be fair, it has been a busy time at edX: On Monday, HarvardX began its first two classes, and that same day, edX announced that the entire University of Texas system is joining its growing band of universities.

Finally, however, the numbers are in, and they’re vague and somewhat disappointing. Keane emailed me the news:

“We have over half a million course enrollments for edX’s eight courses including the inaugural course in Spring 2012 and with Fall 2012 courses still actively enrolling. We have over 370,000 unique learners enrolled in edX. The course enrollment numbers are higher because many learners enroll in more than one course.”

Sounds like a lot, right? It is, especially when you compare those numbers to the total enrollment of MIT, which has just over 4,000 students. But if I’m reading the numbers right, Keane says that the 370,000 “unique learners” include the ones who took the pilot class last spring, meaning that if you subtract the 154,000 students who signed up for the pilot class, only about 215,000 new students have enrolled since then. If you break it down even more, an average of nearly 31,000 new students have enrolled for each of edX’s seven fall classes.

This might help explain why edX waited until all the classes began until they released the enrollment numbers—for fear that 31,000 students per class might appear wimpy compared to the initial explosion of interest, especially with a still-unproven business model where the number of customers is valuable currency. Still, says Keane, edX plans on offering 20-30 classes by spring and expects to have one million enrollments by then.

At the moment, edX is at nearly .04 percent on the way to its initial goal of one billion students. This is just the beginning. We’ll check back in next semester.