The 4 big trends edX founder says will shape learning in higher education

Anant Agarwal, MIT professor and now 2U education leader, says it's time for institutions to scale up and deliver online.

“The only experiment that is a failure is one that you haven’t performed.”

Anant Agarwal

That statement comes from one of the world’s great experimenters and innovators, Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX and Chief Open Education Officer at parent company 2U. He knows firsthand the power of embracing new ideas and new ways of thinking as leader of two tech giants that merged last year and as an MIT professor churning out elite talent over the past 34 years.

Already a driver of sea change in the digital learning space for nearly a decade, edX became one of the most transformational forces in education when the pandemic hit, forcing millions online overnight. That shift led to an unforeseen embrace of virtual classrooms, micro-credentials, faculty instruction changes and yes, the exploration of widespread partnerships among university leaders.

Not all are convinced, but Agarwal says, they’d better be soon. “We are seeing a seismic shift in what learners prefer,” he says. “The time for excuses is passed. I would encourage people to jump in and experiment and try it out.”

Perhaps this number will change a few minds: edX and 2U now boast 40 million learners. They offer an array of services like Online Campus Essentials for the 230 institutions they’ve partnered with—including 19 of the world’s top 20 universities—with 3,600 programs on its “free-to-degree” platform. They expect to see big growth and many more to jump on board as the embrace of online instruction continues.

Agarwal says four trends are going to be hot in the next year of pedagogy and instruction, including increases in blended learning; more modular, stackable credentials such as boot camps, micro bachelor’s and micro master’s degrees; skills-focused courses that get learners “job-ready on day one”; and learner-centric education. MIT and other institutions already have divided up some semester-long courses into two or three separate modules, and schools such as Rice University are developing programs that are thinking hybrid first.

More from UB: How micro-credentials are helping higher ed master the moment

“What the pandemic and online learning showed us is that learners wanted flexibility, they wanted short courses, they wanted more skills,” Agarwal says. “For the first time institutions realized that both learners and faculty actually liked it. When you divide the course into shorter segments and teach two or three shorter courses, learners love that. Learner centricity is going to be big. It’s very radical.”

To learn more about the future of higher education, University Business sat down with Agarwal to get his take on the embrace of digital learning.

Can you share your perspective on the past two years in higher education and the massive shift to online that occurred? Were there silver linings? Are we perhaps in a better place than we were at the start of the pandemic?

The world was already moving in a given direction of the digitization of learning, applying technology and applying computation to make it more efficient and more scalable. Radically good things have happened in terms of access for learners. The pandemic didn’t create new trends, but it poured gasoline on existing trends. Virtually all universities that had already begun the digitization of learning partnered with organizations like edX and did quite well. They were able to pivot and bring quality online learning to all of their learners. I cannot say the same for all universities. We hear these horror stories—death by Zoom, people sitting around watching [lecturers] do exactly what they did in the classroom. Those universities that are invested in quality online learning are able to create much more engaging experiences.

At the end of the day, we saw a huge interest in online learning. On the edX platform in April of 2020, we saw 10x more learners than just a month before that. It’s amazing how, from virtually 0% of the faculty supporting online learning, now various studies show that more than half agree that they want to teach courses in a fully online or blended fashion. Two-thirds of learners are supportive of online learning and hybrid learning options.

Faculty and students seem to be embracing it, but what about college and university leaders?

We’re seeing a lot more interest from university leaders around the world. Three years ago, you had to convince the university leadership that this was a good thing. Most of them had no idea what this was. I’ve taught at MIT for 34 years, and we taught a particular way. But online learning is very different. Now there is a completely changed mindset, where university leaders are approaching us to form these partnerships, where they know edX can create economies of scale and efficiencies of scale by promoting courses and content and degrees to learners all over the world.

Has it been difficult for universities to embrace this digital transformation and create workforce pathways and connections to serve employers? We’re still seeing a lot of gaps in the job market in a number of industries.

That’s always been challenging. What the world has shown us with learner centricity and employer centricity is that we need to be listening and talking to employers in a big way. It’s hard for universities to do that themselves. I’m a big believer in partnerships. 2U has an incredible career services network that has a large cadre of employers that they work with. Why should every university have to create career services and connections to employers? We need to begin thinking of these partnerships, where the different organizations unbundle services and then find the best of breed and create unified integrated solutions that can benefit learners and companies.

Can you share some anecdotes on how transformational online learning has been for students?

This is the part that I enjoy talking about so much. We have so many learners on edX and 2U-powered programs where they’re seeing incredible success as a result of micro-bachelor’s programs or boot camps. One learner comes to mind—Courtney. She had a high school diploma, some college, but no degree. She continued learning on edX and that has helped her get a job. We have another learner, Maggie, who worked as a courier with Postmates. Through a partnership with edX, Postmates offered all their couriers access to edX learning. She was able to skill up, and today she works in supply chain at Amazon. There are incredible stories of learners who were either laid off or were furloughed during the pandemic and were able to achieve new skills and advance in their careers. I was chatting with an Uber driver and said, ‘what do you do?’ He said this is my gig, and I’m taking courses on the side online from this learning site called edX. That made my day.

And of course, the learning is happening across so many different age groups

We have learners ranging in age from 4 years old to 98 years old on edX.

What do you foresee for the future of digital learning? Will these trends continue?

I think we have to be a little cautious. Let’s not declare victory and say, these trends are here. As I speak to university leaders around the world, I tell them that this is our moment, we have captured the interests of faculty and learners. This is our time to create lasting digital transformation, lasting innovative change. Faculty leaders that are embracing that notion are being very successful. But frankly, many leaders are going back to the same old, same old, and it’s unfortunate.

My belief is that we are seeing more and more learners excited about smaller amounts of learning. The good news is that university faculty are much more inclined to offer blended online learning. Universities are trying more than ever before to create these partnerships. I’m very optimistic that more university leadership will move in this direction. In the past, it was very hard to affect change, but in many universities, this is happening. I am enthused about this seismic change that frankly would have taken 20 years previously, but because of the pandemic, I think is going to happen in two years.

Is it too late for those who haven’t yet embraced this digitization to get on board?

A lot of the institutions on edX were doing this before the pandemic. You might argue that they were converted already. But it’s never too late. The pandemic makes it much easier for them now to kind of continue what they’ve been doing. They’ve all been forced to teach online anyway.

How do we ‘eliminate the back row in higher education,’ as 2U has said it wants to do?

I think it’s adoption. At this point, we have invented enough digital technology, enough digital learning. We have courses on how to teach and learn online. People can freely take these. There’s been a lot of innovation. What you need to do now is just do it. It’s the Nike ad. It’s available. It’s free. As a university leader, if you miss the moment, it would be very, very hard to get it back. Faculty and students are familiar with online learning. This is the time to get going and start doing these experiments. In education, time constants run in hundreds of years. What’s two years? Jump into it.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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