S3E19: Improving the Quality of Online Education with edX CEO Anant Agarwal

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In today’s episode of the Learn to Code With Me podcast, I talk with Anant Agarwal. Anant is a professor at MIT, as well as the CEO and founder of edX – an online learning platform started by Harvard and MIT.

Anant has worked as a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT for almost 30 years. He has also served as the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and has started multiple companies including Tilera Corporation.

In our conversation, we talk about how online education has changed over the years and how edX makes sure its courses are applicable to the modern workforce. Anant also shares his advice for highschool students going to college next year. Overall, he reminds us of the wealth of resources we have available to us online.

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

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Laurence Bradford 0:53
Hey listeners, welcome to the Learn to Code With Me podcast. I'm your host Laurence Bradford, and today's Episode I talk with Anant Agarwal. Anant is a professor at MIT as well as the founder and CEO of edX, an online learning platform founded by Harvard and MIT. And our conversation we talked about how and why edX was started some trends in online learning, a nonce advice for high schoolers wanting to pursue technical careers and much, much more. If you want to find out how you can get access to super high quality free courses from the world's best universities, this episode is for you. You can also go to learn to code with.me forward slash edX to see which courses edX has to offer. Remember, you can get Show Notes for this episode, plus more information about anon at learntocodewith.me/podcast.Annat Enjoy.

Laurence Bradford 1:51
Hi, Anant . Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Anant Agarwal 1:53
Oh, thank you, Laurence. My pleasure to be here.

Laurence Bradford 1:55
So really quick, could you introduce yourself to the audience?

Anant Agarwal 1:58
Sure. My name is Anant Agarwal. I am the CEO and founder of edX, and also a professor at MIT.

Laurence Bradford 2:07
Yes. I'm very excited to talk to you today about online learning about your work at edX as well as MIT. But first, I want to backtrack a bit and ask you, what were you doing before you started at edX?

Anant Agarwal 2:20
Well, before they started edX, I was a professor at MIT. I had a research group doing research in chip design, cloud computing, and also teaching courses on campus at MIT. I also had started a company called the Taylor Corporation, which had built a multi core chip that went into you know, multimedia devices, and, and so on. That was also the director of the computer science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. This was before I and my colleagues started edX.

Laurence Bradford 3:04
All right, got it. So you're already in education. You already were a professor at MIT, what led you and your colleagues to create edX then?

Anant Agarwal 3:12
I've been at MIT for, you know, 30 years and teaching for four decades. And one of the things that I was doing at around 2000, who was playing around with how we could apply technology to education, the student and I put together a website called web Sim. Now in order to see if we could teach a complicated subject, like circuits and electronics completely online, and the big challenge with that course was the labs. And so we built out this was 1560 years ago, we built out an online laboratory, just to convince ourselves that if you could actually teach that subject online, and so there's website was was available. And on the average day we would have two or 300 people coming and taking our online circuits laboratories. That's part of this experimental site that this was 15 years ago well before the whole MOOC movement started. And then MIT also had OpenCourseWare, where MIT was making available course materials on the web for people to download, and, you know, and view. And then came 2011, where we decided at MIT to put up content of MIT online, and to make it available for people around the world for free, to enable them to get a certificate, but to have discussion forums, to have grading, and to have real online laboratories, and in our experience with the online circuits lab, gave us confidence that we could do online circuits. That's when MIT Harvard got together and decided to found edX. And they were amazing. They gave us a grant of $16 million to launch edX. And you know, that's how we came to be about five and a half years ago.

Laurence Bradford 5:17
Oh, wow. That's amazing. I that's really great. Baxter. I was not aware of all that. But thank you for elaborating. So you've been doing our edX has been around since 2011. So six years? Correct. Awesome. So in the last six years, this may be a really heavy question, but I would love for you to touch upon this. What trends have you seen in online learning, online education and so forth?

Anant Agarwal 5:42
I think the single biggest thing that I have seen is that all led education has earned a level of new respect among leading universities. Right. Remember, online learning has been around for decades and in many respects It was the province of for profit institutions. And a, you know, didn't have a great, you know, great reputation among the many of the leading universities. Now the one of the biggest changes that have happened in the past six years is that some of the leading universities in the world have gotten into it in a big way. If you look at the latest world IQs rankings of universities that have come out seven of the top 10 world us ranked universities are now offering online courses in edX including MIT, Harvard, Oxford, a number of other top institutions, eth in Switzerland, and so on offering courses on edX. And now that these top universities have gotten into it, and I've seen success, that also adopting it on campus for campus use. Am I He just did a pilot where a cohort of students on campus took a online edX course in circuits, which happened to be a course of my colleagues and I teach completely online now for campus credit. And so I think the biggest change that I've seen is that online learning has got a new level of acceptance among the top universities. I think the second big change that I've seen is that the quality and integrity of online learning has gone up dramatically. That's a second one. You know, in the past, online learning was commonly videos and multiple choice. But today's online learning is not your grandfather's online learning. We have incredibly rich assessment types, the all kinds of rich problem types.

Anant Agarwal 7:54
There's a simulation based laboratories. We even have adaptive learning And so on in recent times, and so the quality has gone up, a lot of mechanisms have been built in to prevent cheating, and so on to maintain the integrity. So we have virtual proctoring solutions where you can use a computer's webcam to watch a student. And it can be watched offline to see if a student actually did their own work. Now, there's also companies developing software to analyze videos online to, to to, you know, make sure that the exams have high integrity. So I think we've seen a quantum improvement in the quality and integrity of online learning how to that second. And then the third big change that has happened is that credentials. In the past, you had credentials, like bachelor's degrees and master's degrees, and then kind of that's about it. And then you had a lot of professional courses. But today, we're seeing universities launch, very valuable credentials are completely online, which are modular And these are new age digital credentials. So for example, on edX, we have launched a new credential called the micro masters. It is a modular credential, it can be completed in about, you know, one quarter to one half of the time you would take to finish a full master's degree. It's very career focused. And it offers a pathway to credit at the universities offering it so. So what have you seen dramatic new, innovative credentials come out from the top universities. So just as one example, we have a, the first micromasters on edX was pioneered by MIT in supply chain management. We similarly have micro masters today. We have close to 40 micro masters today from a number of universities, for example, robotics, from Penn, artificial intelligence from Columbia. We have a user interface design and research from Michigan and so on. So I think That would be the third big change, which is the revolutionary you credentials that are being introduced by some of the top universities in the world.

Laurence Bradford 10:09
All right, awesome. Thank you so much for elaborating all that was such a such great information. And I totally agree with how online learning the first thing you mentioned how it's earned this new level of respect over the last several years. And now, pretty much like almost all I mean, most, if not all universities have online programs. And that's really exciting to see. I have now a question more specific for edX. I was wondering with the courses that you choose to have on the edX platform. How do you make sure and actually backtrack for a second, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but the courses on an X are all kind of university partnerships, correct?

Anant Agarwal 10:48
We have about 130 a world class institutions. Most of them are universities, but we also have others. We have corporations like Microsoft and And foundations like the Linux Foundation, we also have the World Bank and the IMF Amnesty International. So we have a very, you know, high quality mix of institutions as our partners.

Laurence Bradford 11:15
Alright, nice because I was going to ask how are you making sure that the skills that are being taught are applicable to the modern workforce.

Anant Agarwal 11:23
So, so you know, so we offer learners education. Education is about improving people's lives. One big part of improving people's lives is to launch or improve your career. And in order to do that, we have a large number of programs on edX that are skills focused or career focused. Now we also have a lot of programs that are more you know, programs that might be enrichment programs and so on as well as the way we try to work towards creating careers Focused programs is, you know, first of all, there's a huge learner interest in doing that. And we communicate that to our partners learners are coming in large numbers to programs that have career outcomes, particularly in fields that are extremely popular among employers. So for example, some of the most popular fields on edX include coding and computer science, you know, neurons are something which you have been a, a very strong activist in yourself. Data Science is another strong area of business is another number of fields that are very popular from a student perspective. So that is one popularity among students.

Anant Agarwal 12:46
The second is that we have created a corporate advisory board at edX where we have about 25 leading corporations like Microsoft and Boeing and IBM and Accenture and MasterCard That that are part of our consortium that work with edX, and help us endorse a lot of our programs. So each of our micro master's programs for examples is endorsed by a corporation, in terms of the career outcomes that it provides each micro master's program, or each professional certificate program, which is a second class of programs that we have. Each of these programs are endorsed by a corporation. Each program clearly states its carrier outcome. And we work with our partners who create these programs to make sure that there's a clear career outcome. And we also work with corporations to endorse it and provide a testimonial towards that carrier outcome. So these are some of the ways in which we try to make it happen.

Laurence Bradford 13:49
All right, awesome. Thanks so much for filling in. I'm going to switch gears a bit now. And I want to give you a bit of scenario questions. So of course, you know a ton about technology and the trends work at MIT and also I'm creating edX. Let's say there is someone listening to the show right now who is in high school, and they're going to college next year, and they're trying to figure out what to study. And they know they want to study something related to technology, but they're not sure what in they want to make sure that it is lucrative, like it's a, you know, a very in demand field. What advice would you give to that person on what they should study?

Anant Agarwal 14:24
You know, at the high school level. I'm a big believer in having high schoolers get a broad based education. I have a daughter in high school, who just graduated and will be going to college in a couple of months. And I would give the high schoolers out there the same advice that I give my daughter, which is get a broad education, be curious, learn how to learn. Oh, and by the way, don't forget to learn some coding.

Anant Agarwal 14:53
So, so I would say that, you know, the basic subjects would be wrong. Learn humanities to help you with critical thinking and learn to write well and read well learn math, math is just fantastic. You know, they do a lot of math, and of course, learn some coding, learn computational thinking. And we have a lot of courses on edX that can help you with this. You'll be have, if you go to edX and search for high school, you'll see a lot of courses, which are part of our high school program. We have a significant number of high school AP courses that you can advanced placement courses that you can learn about take for free. So on the edX website edx.org. We have all of these courses where you can learn for free virtually all of our courses are available to learn for free. You can learn up you know math courses, we have algebra and geometry. At the at the seventh or eighth grade levels. You can take calculus, upper University calculus and math. There's a lot of courses in English freshman English composition. There's no writing and similar courses from Berkeley. You can learn various other subjects. You can learn languages on edX, I would I would do a broad range of courses, as I said earlier, and don't forget to learn how to code. Now we have a number of fantastic introductory coding courses. Virtually all the highly marketable fields where you have a lot of employment available employment opportunities available, related to coding. And so you can learn introduction to our programming on edX. There's a great art programming course from Microsoft. There's one from Harvard with data science is important. You should also think about learning Python, you know, Python is, you know, in today's times, you know, Python is sort of the lingua franca of the, you know, computing generation given several introduction to Python courses. There will be a telephone course from Georgia Tech. We have a terrific course on Python from MIT, which is followed by an MIT course on Python for a data science. And so, we also have a course very introductory course, the perfect for even, maybe elementary school or middle schoolers on scratch programming. So that these are all the kinds of courses that you can go and learn online for free.

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Laurence Bradford 19:26
Awesome and out of curiosity, I hope you don't mind sharing. What is your daughter studying next year.

Anant Agarwal 19:32
So my daughter will be going to college and she's going in undeclared. But she has a broad set of interests. She enjoys writing a lot. She enjoys a theater that she's taken up, you know, she's done. But she's my daughter after all, and so he's done a lot of math and computer science courses. She did. She did goes through code a year ago. And, you know, I'm just a huge fan of the Girls Who Code organization. So she's got a broad set of interests. So I think she wants to combine something in involving both writing and design, coding, perhaps.

Laurence Bradford 20:19
All right, awesome. I just was curious because I, I didn't even realize when I asked the question that you are in a very relevant position since you have a daughter going to college next year. So that's pretty cool. And I just was wondering about that. And I I went to college, undeclared as well, I think, I think it's pretty common. So she's definitely in a good company.

Anant Agarwal 20:36
Absolutely. Fantastic.

Laurence Bradford 20:38
Yeah. All right. So to me when I'm looking at you, and it seems like I mean, you basically have two jobs, right? You're a professor at MIT. And then you're also the CEO of edX. So I was curious, what is your day to day? Like? How does it this split between the two? Yeah, just just if you could elaborate on that. That'd be awesome.

Anant Agarwal 21:00
Just to be clear, now I'm a professor at MIT. But MIT has very kindly given me a leave of absence, that enables me to devote 150% of my time related to edX and increasing access to education for people all over the world.

Laurence Bradford 21:22
Okay, so a misunderstanding of mine. So it's 100%, or as you said, 150%, edX for the time being.

Anant Agarwal 21:29
Absolutely, absolutely. And and I'm happy to share, you know, what I what my day looks like, but I just want to be clear. It's largely focused on edX.

Laurence Bradford 21:37
And so can relate to that. When you first started edX. Were you teaching at MIT as well? Was there ever a time that you were doing both at the same time?

Anant Agarwal 21:48
Oh, yes. It was one of the crazier periods of my life. And this was in the fall of 2011 in the spring of 2012. That time I was the director of the computer science and AI lab at MIT to MIT is because lab. And I was also teaching the campus course on circuits along with my colleagues. And I also had a pretty large research group. And so, Oh, and I forgot. And we were incubating edX in the basement of the computer science and AI lab building. And so it's like a startup company. And so, so that was quite a bit one of the more fun periods of my life.

Laurence Bradford 22:33
Oh, man. Yeah, I can only imagine. I mean, geez, that sounds like a lot on your plate with all that and mighty alone. And then not to mention on everything going on at edX as well.

Anant Agarwal 22:42
Absolutely. But, but it was just an incredible time, where, you know, but pretty much all entrepreneurs who create a startup are in a similar situation where they have the day job and and then they want to start a company and so they have a night job and they have to somehow give their full focus to the day job and they have a night job. They're creating a new company. And but that was the same with edX.

Laurence Bradford 23:08
So you're doing that you said for the fall of 2011, and then the spring of 2012. And then after that you put full attention on edX.

Anant Agarwal 23:17
Exactly. So after that, you know, it's funny. Not many people know this. But, you know, Fall of 2011. In the spring of 2012, we were actually conducting a search for a CEO of FedEx. And the plan was photos from MIT and Harvard to launch it, and find the CEO. And but along the way, you know, my colleagues and others felt that my heart was really into edX. And so they graciously allowed me to step down from my director position at csail. And, and step back from my research activities and so on, which was really heartbreaking because I really enjoyed it. With all my students at a large research group, and also enjoyed to my colleagues and the work I was doing as the director of the lab, but but, you know, my they were gracious enough to, to encourage me to go to edX full time and which is why, you know, I took over as the CEO of edX envy stopped the search for a CEO.

Laurence Bradford 24:21
Oh, wow, little fun fact. There. That's, that's awesome. Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, I had no idea. And it's obviously been a good fit, because it's been well, like five years later, since the spring of 2012 and?

Anant Agarwal 24:31
I've absolutely had a had a total blast doing this. And so that led me hopefully my colleagues at edX feel the same way but absolutely had a blast.

Laurence Bradford 24:42
Awesome. So, okay, so so you start at x is obviously a very small group of colleagues, how big is the company today? And if you could just talk a bit about how it's grown and how it's evolved? I would love that.

Anant Agarwal 24:53
Sure. So we started in computing, see that x in the basement of the csail see sale is a computer science and AI lab. It's it's a short form of that. When we started in the basement of csail, there was, you know, I pulled in one or two people initially and some of the team members such as David Ormsby, and, and Caleb Pennington, and others are still at edX. They were the first two or three people that we pulled into edX in the fall of 2011. And then, since that time, after Harvard and MIT came together, we've now grown to 130 university partners. Today, six years later, we have 12 million learners registered learners from every single country in the world. We have 1500 courses, but close to 40 micro masters and 15 professional certificate programs on edX. We are still a small startup in Kendall Square. We are about 170 people.

Laurence Bradford 26:00
Hiring 70 people and of course, well I know Kendall Square used to live in Boston. That's right by MIT still.

Anant Agarwal 26:05
Yes, it's it's a few blocks from MIT. And, like, you know, Kendall Square is the heart of startup country in the northeast, and it's just a fantastic, fantastic, fantastic place place to be. You know, you know, there's a lot of startup companies in the area, like, you know, by carbonite, and you know, Google and, and Twitter and just a lot of biotech and high tech industry, all in the vicinity. So it's just an incredibly energizing place to be.

Laurence Bradford 26:39
Yeah, awesome. And you mentioned that you have 12 million learners now from around the world. I was wondering what is the breakdown of those? like looking at different countries and regions? Of course, you guys are based in Boston inside the US. are most of the people taking courses from the US is there another country or several where there are really large representation. I'm just curious, how about that?

Anant Agarwal 27:03
The learners from every single country in the world, depending on your definition, you know, but one definition is that 228 countries and so we have learners from 228 countries. We have about 30% of our learners are from the United States, the remaining 70%, or international. The second largest country is India, where we have about about 10% of our learners coming from. And then we have about, you know, several countries where we have about three to 4% of learners such as UK, China, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, a number of countries that are in the, you know, three to 4% range from all over the world. We have, we've just launched a Spanish site. So if you go to edx.org slash s That's a Spanish language site where people can search for courses and, and interact with a front end in Spanish. Our platform is internationalized, so that we have courses in many languages. And as a learner, you can select your language and the interaction with our platform will, you know, be in that language? And we have courses in in, you know, Chinese, Spanish. English, of course, Hindi. A number of languages Arabic. So, so quite a few languages.

Laurence Bradford 28:36
Awesome. And you pretty much answered the questions couldn't ask afterwards, I was asked going to ask about localization and how you guys have been tackling that and whether or not you had courses available in other language, other languages and you did mention that you did. You have the Spanish site, you have the ability for people to like choose a language I think is what you said when they're when they're going in to pick with which to learn from. So that is all Really awesome. Um, so looking ahead, what are some of your future plans for edX?

Anant Agarwal 29:06
So, so we have, we can think about many, many dimensions. Certainly, you know, Ben be even be started edX. You know, our goal was to make education accessible to everybody around the world with a internet connection, and a will to learn. About four years ago, we made our platform software open source, so that even if a partner could not join edX, they could use our software and launch a site themselves. It's called Open edX. And today, there are 800 Open edX sites. And in addition to the 12 million learners on edX, there's another 12 million learners on the Open edX sites, leading to that 24 million learners learning on our platform. Many countries are using Open edX the ministries of education Countries like Israel and France and Russia and China, you know, are all using Open edX platforms. So for us, a big part of our future is to continue to increase access to education and for between edX and Open edX from 24 million of learners, we want to go to hundreds of millions of learners, I want to keep increasing the numbers of people that can have access to it. That's in terms of numbers. We also want to offer true pathways to real careers to people. And so we launched a but the micro master's programs and professional certificate programs. If you're also looking in that dimension of the credentials, we've launched stacked degree programs. So we launched a stack degree program with Georgia Tech. It's a cool concept. So today, you can go and do a campus master's degree. But here, imagine you can do a a micromass In data analytics on edX, and then if you want to continue on for a full Master's from Georgia Tech on edX, you can do it fully online. And so you can get a small credential like the micro masters or you can continue for a full master's degree. It's called a stacked degree program. And you can do the whole degree program for under $10,000. So, so we want to continue to innovate in in credentials, and the opportunities for people.

Anant Agarwal 31:28
The other big thrust would be to improve the quality of education if you're constantly experimenting with new techniques and approaches to the to improve the learner experience, both in terms of how well they're learning, but also in terms of their engagement board and also and also improve the integrity of these programs so that universities become very comfortable offering you know, enter degrees from the top university. He's completely online and also using the same courses and programs to enable the campus students to learn from them. So, so we have, I just have incredibly ambitious agenda. You know, to summarize, we want to increase access to learners all over the world. Second, we want to improve the quality of education and integrity of online education as well in a big way. And then third, we want to create novel new credentials that will offer a new pathways to learner and learners so that they can become continuous learners throughout life. I think education should not stop when you've just completed college. But we want to create a world where learners can keep learning and employees can keep learning throughout life. You know, new jobs are popping up in new areas and all areas are oftentimes becoming outdated. And so, you know, there's millions of jobs available in data science alone and the word data science wasn't coined until you know Eight or nine years ago, so so so people that need to become continuous learners. And so we want to engender a world where people become continuous learners. And we want to help create that.

Laurence Bradford 33:11
Awesome. Thank you so much, again for coming on and sharing all of your wisdom. And I'm super excited to see where edX heads in the coming years. Lastly, where can people find you online?

Anant Agarwal 33:22
Um, I think it's a Google my name Anant Agarwal, you'll find a lot of information about me. You know, a specific, specific access would be my Twitter handle, which is @agarwal.edu. So that's @A-G-A-R-W-A-L.E-D-U.

Laurence Bradford 33:44
Awesome. And we'll definitely include your Twitter handle and all the other resources that you shared in the episode shownotes thanks again for coming on.

Anant Agarwal 33:52
Oh, my pleasure, Laurence. Thank you very much.

Laurence Bradford 34:00
I hope you enjoyed our conversation. Again, the Show Notes for this episode can be found at learntocodewith.me/podcast. If you're listening to this episode in the future, simply click the Search icon in the upper navigation and type in Anant's. That's A-N-A-N-T. If Anant has inspired you to take online courses through edX. Head over to learntocodewith.me/edX to see what the platform has to offer. Thank you so much for tuning in, and I'll see you next week.

Key takeaways:

  • Online education has earned a new level of respect among leading universities, in part because of significant improvements to the quality and credentials on offer.
  • If you’re young, get a broad education. Study the humanities to develop critical thinking skills, learn to read and write well, learn math and, of course, learn to code.
  • Be curious and learn how to learn.
  • Consider learning Python; it’s the lingua franca of the coding generation.

Links and mentions from the episode:

Please note: some of the links on this page are affiliate links. If you buy a course from edX, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting LTCWM.

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