edX: transforming education to feed the future workforce

Genna Ash speaks to Anant Agarwal and Adam Medros, co-CEOs of edX, the world’s largest MOOC provider, about the impact and relevance of this powerful education platform as we progress through the digital age


Anant Agarwal

Anant Agarwal

Job title:
Co-CEO edX


Adam Medros

Adam Medros

Job title: 

Co-CEO edX


Q. Why did Harvard and MIT feel the need to create the edX platform?

Anant Agarwal: Back in 2012, our society was facing – and still faces – many educational challenges – skills gaps due to technological change, limited access to high-quality learning, and massive cost and time commitments required to attain credentials – some of which still exist today. We knew that there were millions of learners in the world for whom the barriers to access the education they needed were insurmountable, so Harvard and MIT decided to come together and create edX to drive solutions to these challenges.

Our mission was threefold: to expand access to high-quality education to everyone, everywhere; reimagine education both on-campus and online; and improve teaching and learning outcomes through research. We set out to break the barriers of traditional education and create a new way of learning through digital technology – one that adapted to all the new ways, methods, and places in which we all learn today.

Q. How is edX committed to transforming the traditional education model?

Anant Agarwal: At edX, we are reimagining education by working with our global network of partner institutions to remove the barriers to traditional learning and create new, innovative credentials that meet our learners where they are in their careers and lives. To do this, we are creating new education pathways and enabling modular and stackable education opportunities. Modular education breaks traditional degrees into smaller educational segments that each have their own credentials and skills outcome. Students can stack these modular degrees and personalise their learning experience, ultimately tailoring education to the individual and what they specifically need to advance their career. By providing these credentials online, they offer more flexibility and lower costs than traditional education courses.

We also work closely with our partner institutions and industry-leading organisations to provide a wide range of skill-building opportunities for continuous learners, in every stage of their lives. With the help of our academic and organisational partners, we are happy to have provided quality education to 24 million additional learners and counting, worldwide. But while the transformation has begun, there is still much more work to do. We will continue to work with our partners to create a future where everyone, everywhere has access to high-quality education. 

Q. How does Open edX help both educators and technologists?

Anant Agarwal: Open edX is a teaching and learning platform that we built to showcase the latest in learning sciences and instructional design. We made the platform open source in 2013, which allows for a collaborative environment where global contributors (including educators and technologists) work with us to develop enhancements and new features for the platform. The Open edX platform powers some of the largest national learning platforms in the world, including XuetangX in China and FUN in France. Currently, the edX platform is the world’s largest MOOC (massive open online courses) provider, bringing together over 50 million learners speaking 46 different languages, taking more than 30,000 courses. 

Q. How do you think employer expectations will change throughout 2020?

Adam Medros: A recent edX survey found that more than one-third (37%) of respondents have experienced a lack of proficiency in at least one new skill or subject area of a current or past job. In 2020, employers’ biggest expectations will revolve around the need for their employees to be well versed in a wide variety of skill sets, as the technological landscape continues to evolve and the need for specific areas of expertise increases. Rather than looking for new hires to fill specific skill gaps, employers will recognise that it is more beneficial to provide their current employees with opportunities for continuous learning and reskilling.

Additionally, employers will need to consider evolving employee expectations. More people are looking for jobs where they have an opportunity to learn and grow, giving all the more reason for employers to provide continuous L&D. To avoid passing their employees to their competitors, employers will alter their strategies and commit to investment in their workers’ learning opportunities. This investment will retain existing talent by reinforcing their personal value, but also attracting new talent by showing prospective employees that the company is committed to their growth.

In the next few years, we’ll see trusted higher learning platforms move the needle when it comes to expanding these wrappers in a way that validates alternative forms of learning while maintaining their integrity – Adam Medros

Q. How can employers best promote L&D to their advantage?

Adam Medros: To best promote L&D to their advantage, employers need to create a culture of learning and show how L&D investment is beneficial for the employer, employees and the larger community. Employers can show that they are committed to their employees and communities by prioritising continuous learning and development as part of a company’s corporate social responsibility. Company leaders have the power and resources to drive the needle towards better education in the workplace by helping their own employees learn new skills and develop them into continuous learners – well equipped and constantly adapting to the dynamic world we live in. With 94% of employees stating they would stay with companies that invested in learning opportunities, it’s up to employers to fulfil their moral and economic duty to their employees and community, ensuring both earning potential and a lower unemployment rate. 

Q. Why should companies continue to invest in agile learning strategies?

Anant Agarwal: To stay equipped and relevant in today’s world, employers must invest in agile learning strategies for their employees, or they risk their workforce getting left behind as technology advances at a faster pace than ever before. This in turn will affect the bottom line and overall strategic success and growth. 

Adam Medros: In 2020, it’s the moral responsibility of corporations to increase their investment in agile learning opportunities for their employees whose jobs are eroding or in decline due to technological change. Aligned with the trends toward stakeholder capitalism illustrated by the refreshed Davos Manifesto and the new conclusions of the US Business Roundtable, companies will increasingly recognise the importance of making their workforce a priority, and should support them through skills adjacencies programmes or investing in learning opportunities to improve their employability.

Q. What do you see in the future of edtech beyond 2020?

Anant Agarwal: In 2020 and beyond, we’re going to see demand for undergraduate-level learning grow. This is one of the largest untapped markets for online learning, and workers without a college degree represent some of the groups most likely to be impacted by changing jobs and technologies. The most effective programmes in this space will be online, matched well with industry needs, and teach immediately transferable skills. This is why we kicked off the year by launching MicroBachelor’s programmes – the first credit-backed, stackable undergraduate online credential. 

Adam Medros: Additionally, we think one of the biggest changes continuing past 2020 will be the changing credentials market. There are currently three containers for education in the US: associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. In the next few years, we’ll see trusted higher learning platforms move the needle when it comes to expanding these wrappers in a way that validates alternative forms of learning while maintaining their integrity. As the education industry innovates and reimagines how education is defined, employers will become more accepting of these alternative credentials and truly begin to understand the value of these less traditional methods of education.

You might also like: Launches of new MOOC degrees declined in 2019

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