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Excerpt from online forum Q&A with Anant Agarwal, President of edX

Earlier this month, edX President and MIT professor Anant Agarwal posted some lengthly answers to online questions on this slashdot forum.  Below are some edited highlights from his responses:

On viewing edX course archives…

A large number of our learners…want to audit a course and prefer it to be always available. For that reason, a significant number of our previous courses are indeed offered as “past courses” or “archived courses”.

On the future of college learning & college professors…

I predict that 10 years from now there will be a much greater number of adjuncts and lecturers, and a much greater choice of courses for students in 2nd and 3rd tier universities.  Think of online learning and platforms to create great online course material not as making teachers obsolete, but as tools for teachers, which will enable them to do a lot more than they could previously with the time they had. Blogging sites and online news did not make journalists obsolete…in much the same manner, online learning has the potential to transform education.

We are working with campuses to blend online learning with in-person education. Initial results in student outcomes at institutions like San Jose State University, Mass Bay Community College, and Bunker Hill Community College, are very promising. As more of these blended experiments yield good results, the perception of online learning will continue to improve, and be viewed not as an alternative to on-campus learning, but rather as complementary to it.

About the relevance of college degrees…

I believe that in the future degree transcripts will be replaced by a portfolio of credentials, including badges and certificates. OK OK, and degrees too, for backwards compatibility. Good old degrees with 4 years in college, in stove-piped departments are an antediluvian concept. My bachelor’s degree at IIT madras was a 5-year program, and I probably use 20% of that in my job at this point in my life. In today’s fast moving world, learners and employers are looking for multidisciplinary education. Further, they are looking to refresh their skills as workplace needs change.

A degree, fundamentally, is a signaling mechanism. It tells an employer that the holder likely has a set of skills. In the modern world, employers are looking for a diverse set of skills. So a promising alternative is one where learners acquire a traditional degree for 2 years (certainly less than the traditional 4 years). Then, the learner augments that with various other signals — call them badges, or MOOC-style certificates, so that employers can now see the whole portfolio.

A couple of weeks ago, edX also announced another interesting signaling mechanism, an XSeries certificate. Here a learner can take a sequence of courses in a given discipline on edX, and by passing all the courses in the sequence, earn an XSeries certificate. MIT and edX announced XSeries certificates in Foundations of Computer Science and Supply Chain Management for a start. We believe these XSeries credentials from edX will have strong signaling value to employers and take MOOC credentialing and badging one additional step forward.

On student motivation challenges in MOOCs…

A recent study by Lori Breslow, et. al. on found that students were motivated and had a better chance at success if they worked in groups. I was chatting with a learner who was taking an edX course in Krgezistan and he had to drop out half way. Later he told me that he discovered that there were three other students taking the same class in his town close to where he lived, and had he known that, he would have connected with them and stayed the course. Following these learnings, we are encouraging our students to form study groups through meetups, and facilitating this with links to meetup sites in the course introduction email.

We believe that programs such as [XSeries] will increase the motivation of students to complete their existing course, so they can go on to the next one, eventually earning an XSeries certificate to indicate mastery in a given discipline.

On the edX business model…

edX is a non-profit startup, but we still need to be self-sustaining. So we are exploring several business models spanning both B2C and B2B. Unlike other MOOC providers, since edX non-profit, we do not have VC investors, rather we have institutional funders including MIT and Harvard. Many of our university partners such as the UT system have also contributed money to our cause. One can view these initial contributions as an early round of investment in edX. In the B2C space, we use a freemium model. Students can take our courses for free, and they can even get an honor code certificate for free. However, we charge a small fee for ID-verified certificates (typically between $25 and $100 for a course), and students have the opportunity to contribute voluntarily to our cause by paying more than the minimum fee.