Q&A  | 

Anant Agarwal and the democratization of education through technology

"By leveraging technology in the service of education, we have an opportunity to close the global education gap."

Tags: 'Learning platforms' 'MOOC' 'Stackable learing'

SHARE

Anant Agarwal is a computer architecture researcher, founder and CEO of edX, the trusted platform for education and learning. Founded by Harvard and MIT, edX is home to more than 20 million learners, the majority of top-ranked universities in the world and industry-leading companies. Anant taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

edX is a trusted platform for education and learning. Founded by Harvard and MIT, edX is home to 25 million learners, the majority of top-ranking universities in the world and industry-leading companies. As a global nonprofit, edX is transforming traditional education, removing the barriers of cost, location and access.

As a global nonprofit, edX is transforming traditional education, removing the barriers of cost, location and access.

Fulfilling the demand for people to learn on their own terms, edX is reimagining the possibilities of education, providing the highest-quality, stackable learning experiences including our groundbreaking MicroMasters® programs and MicroBachelors™ programs, and other career-relevant credentials including Professional Certificates and Master’s degrees. 

What are the main changes we are going to see in the education of the future?

In today’s digital economy, rapid technological change is transforming the workplace, and it has become apparent that we can no longer stop our education after college if we are to stay relevant. We will need to be continually learning, refreshing and updating our skillset as we progress through our careers. This drastic change in the nature of work also means that the way in which we learn needs to similarly transform.

Recognizing that we need to expand the options for students to gain an education, higher education institutions are starting to innovate, creating new ways to unbundle degrees and create non-linear, modular career and education pathways.

Recognizing that we need to expand the options for students to gain an education, higher education institutions are starting to innovate, creating new ways to unbundle degrees and create non-linear, modular career and education pathways.

One main change we’ll see is the unbundling of traditional learning “packages” — Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degrees — into more manageable learning chunks that are also tied to real career and life outcomes. This is called modular learning, and it enables working professionals to learn new skills in shorter amounts of time, even while they work, and those seeking a degree are able to do so in a much more attainable way. They also earn credentials for the smaller modules of learning, thereby garnering value and positive feedback early in the process of advancing towards full degrees. This early positive feedback also increases motivation for learners to persist towards the full degree, if that is their goal.

Another change we’ll see is educational institutions taking those modular learning chunks and combining them together to create a traditional learning package, like a master’s degree. This is called stackable learning, when you take certificates and credentials that you earn from different educational institutions and “stack” them together to form a larger credential or degree.

How big will the role of technology be?

By leveraging technology in the service of education, we have an opportunity to close the global education gap. So technology will have a fundamental role to play.

Since 2012, the burgeoning MOOC (massive open online course) movement has demonstrated that high-quality education can be provided affordably and at scale to students around the world. Online education platforms have already helped millions of people achieve college readiness and upgrade their skills at prices far below those of more traditional approaches.

Online education platforms have already helped millions of people achieve college readiness and upgrade their skills at prices far below those of more traditional approaches.

Digital technologies can also help us reach new audiences and reimagine the delivery of education. By making major investments to improve access to digital technology and fund tuitions, we can significantly expand the opportunities for more young people to pursue higher education, regardless of where they are.

Is the concept of knowledge going to change?

Our concept of knowledge will change. Today we place importance on knowing facts, making relevant connections between the facts and problems at hand, and on how to apply our knowledge to solve problems. With the tremendous expansion of computation, our concept of knowledge will place more emphasis on making connections and solving problems. Our soft skills, including empathy and communication, will also become even more important as machines do more and more of our work.

For example, a full degree won’t be the only marker of success, and companies will recognize smaller credentials as qualifiers for jobs.

Similarly, with the growth of modular learning, we anticipate that the traditional markers of knowledge and educational success will change. For example, a full degree won’t be the only marker of success, and companies will recognize smaller credentials as qualifiers for jobs. Of the edX learners that have completed a MicroMasters program, one of our credential programs, 87% have reported a positive career outcome (e.g. raise, promotion, or new job), which indicates to us that employers are already seeing them as valuable markers of aptitude.

You've said there's a quote by Mark Cuban you really like where he says that in ten years time a major in Philosophy will be worth more than one in Computer Science. Why is that so?

In that quote, Mark Cuban made a prediction that many people in the technical fields found shocking: in ten years, “a liberal arts degree in philosophy will be worth more than a traditional programming degree.” His reasoning is that AI and automation will transform the job market and the skills people need so much that degrees that teach how to think in a big picture way and better reason, collaborate and communicate will become more valuable.

His reasoning is that AI and automation will transform the job market and the skills people need so much that degrees that teach how to think in a big picture way and better reason, collaborate and communicate will become more valuable.

This is sound reasoning based on the current outlook for our economy and workforce, and a testament to why these types of “soft skills” are increasingly talked about. In fact, there is good reason to call them “power skills”.

Are universities adapting for the jobs of the future, or are we facing an academic gap?

Universities are increasingly adapting to the jobs for the future by partnering with platforms like edX. edX, the only learning platform that is also a nonprofit, was founded by, and continues to be governed by, colleges and universities.

Universities are increasingly adapting to the jobs for the future by partnering with platforms.

We are creating a network of the world’s top schools and institutions to offer cutting edge credentials such as MicroMasters programs and MicroBachelors programs for upskilling for the future of work.  Our member base consists of leading global schools, nonprofits, corporations and international organizations. In addition to developing and delivering courses on the edX platform, we work with our members to improve education both online and on campus, conduct research on how students learn, and better tie learning to the jobs and career outcomes desired by our learners.

What is open learning, and how is that going to affect the landscapes of learning?

Open learning involves enhancing learning opportunities both within and outside of formal education systems, and is foundational to edX, our mission and our vision for the future of education.

For example, we support open learning by offering almost all of our courses and programs as MOOCs; having open admission for our MicroMasters programs and MicroBachelors programs; and making our platform available as an open source software, Open edX, to allow for collaboration and improvements with educators and technologists worldwide.

Will technology make education more inclusive, available and democratic?

Technology has democratized any number of services that were once reserved for the wealthy or influential. For example, telephone land lines in India went at an incredible premium in the 70’s and 80’s with long waiting lines, unless you wielded incredible influence or wealth. Tech enabled mobile phones changed all that and brought communication to the masses within a couple of decades.

Similarly, technology will democratize education. We believe that the most promising solution to make education more inclusive is to leverage digital technology to expand access to and improve the quality of education. The good news is the path forward has already been started through the MOOC movement, and numerous proofs of concept exist both in the for-profit and the nonprofit world. 

We believe that the most promising solution to make education more inclusive is to leverage digital technology to expand access to and improve the quality of education.

The MOOC movement has demonstrated that quality education can be provided affordably and at scale. By applying digital technology to education, digital education platforms are now enabling millions of learners from all parts of the world to become ready for college, upskill and obtain career-relevant skills at price points that are 1 to 2 orders of magnitude lower than traditional approaches. With further investment, the impact could have world-changing effects.

Will the educational models of the future be technology based, or will human interaction remain fundamental?

Both will be key to education models of the future. Our Fourth Industrial age will be defined by mass personalization achieved through cloud-based platforms and artificial intelligence. These technologies must be applied to education as well. It is pretty clear that traditional solutions can achieve mass (big, one-size-fits-all lectures) or achieve personalization (expensive personal tutors), but the combination can only be accomplished by combining digital technology with human interaction.