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A Conversation with Anant Agarwal on His New Role: 2U’s Chief Open Education Officer

edX Founder, Anant Agarwal, sat down with 2U's Chief Learning Officer, Luyen Chou, to discuss his new role as 2U's Chief Open Education Officer. Read the interview below, which also appears on 2U's blog, The Latest. 

Anant Agarwal is a disruptor, an innovator, and most importantly, a teacher. As founder and CEO of edX, he reimagined how education is done, fueled by a passion for democratizing education for all, and I could not be more excited by the future we can unlock together.

As 2U’s first chief open education officer, Anant will bring academic bona fides together with a unique understanding of how to harness technology to deliver effective educational outcomes at scale. I look forward to learning from and with him as we advance our learning science research agenda, embed data more deeply into our learning design practices, and accelerate our mission to expand access to higher education for learners.

Now that 2U and edX have officially joined together, I sat down with Anant to welcome him to the team, understand where his zeal for advancing education comes from, discover how edX found its groove, and hear where he sees us going next. Anant is indisputably one of the most influential and humble harbingers of progressive education. It won’t take you long to learn why.

You are a pioneer, Anant. We’re incredibly lucky to have you at 2U. Let’s start from the very beginning. What initially sparked your interest in reimagining education and led you to the career you have today?

Thank you for the kind words, Luyen. I think the best place to start is my education experience as a child and young adult.

I grew up in Mangalore, India, a small coastal town, where I witnessed the global education gap firsthand. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend IIT Madras, one of India’s top universities, which opened up incredible opportunities for me and set me on my career path. However, this type of access and opportunity was, and still is, limited to too few.

I believe education is a human right–everyone should have access to it like the air we breathe. While teaching at MIT, it dawned on me that higher education was only reaching a tiny fraction of the world’s most curious minds at the time. I thought there must be a way to democratize education and reimagine how it is delivered. And that’s where the idea for edX first began. 

Together with my colleagues at MIT and Harvard, we imagined a platform that would offer their courses online, open to any individual ready to learn, at no cost. What we thought was a long-shot experiment proved successful from the start: The first edX course I taught on circuits and electronics from MIT drew in 155,000 students from 162 countries around the world, and 7,200 passed. I would have to teach at MIT for 36 years to have this many students pass my course. That was my ‘aha’ moment. We were doing something right.

Yes, edX cracked the nut on attracting hundreds of thousands of learners across the globe from the very beginning. That’s quite the accomplishment. Why do you believe students are so drawn to edX’s learning pathways? 

I believe that learners are drawn to edX because we meet them where they are, with flexible, accessible, high-quality learning opportunities. We provide the right learning pathways, difficulty levels, and subjects learners care about most, and we provide them with the right time, right size education that they need. We also offer some of the best education available in the world (thanks to our incredible partners) at a disruptive price point, especially in the credential and degree space. 

edX and 2U had very similar, humble beginnings. We both faced skeptics early on who did not believe in the promise and potential of high-quality, online education. How has edX won over skeptics, especially those wary of completion rates?

Put simply, we reframe the discussion. For MOOCs, completion rates are such a strict definition of success. And frankly, I think it’s the wrong one. Many academics who study MOOCs have long recognized that learners enroll in and use MOOCs to achieve a variety of outcomes beyond course completion, such as simply exploring a new topic of interest, diving deep into one specific module in the course, or trying a course out before committing to the whole thing. Learner intent is important in picking the right outcome for MOOCs.

For example, as COVID-19 spread across the globe, learners came to us with new and urgent needs: they were unemployed or furloughed and were looking for an opportunity to explore new career pathways; they were determined to exemplify initiative to prospective employers while their universities were shut down; they were simply interested in learning something new with extra time on their hands. Learners’ goals are as diverse as they are, but they are all ambitious and eager to grow through education.

The perfect segue. edX’s purpose and commitment have always been to the learner. The same can be said of 2U. What is one example of a way you put students first?

We’re committed to creating impactful outcomes for learners everywhere, so we listen to what they want. My circuits course on edX started out as a semester-long course, just as it was at MIT. However, we heard from some learners that they knew the intro material already, while others told us that they just wanted the basics. So I divided my course into three independent modules, which learners could select from depending on their background and goals. 

Another great example of this comes from 2016. When learners told us they needed more programs and courses that serve as on-ramps to real career outcomes, we built MicroMasters programs and Professional Certificates. We continue to offer both learning opportunities today because they’ve proven to change lives.

You hinted towards best practices. What about the pedagogy of edX? Courses are based on active learning–what does that mean? 

There is no sitting down and watching a lecture for an hour in an edX course. Our platform is grounded in leading-edge cognitive and learning science so that learning experiences on edX are active learning experiences. This means that learning content is broken up into manageable chunks, such as a short video followed by knowledge checks or a peer-reviewed open response question. This method of learning something new and applying it immediately improves knowledge retention–and learner outcomes. Designing high-quality online courses is an art and a science, and we work closely with our partners to bring the best courses to edX.

I’ve heard you talk about the edX mission as being the mantra of your life, so I can see why mission alignment between edX and 2U was critical to your decision to join the company. Why is the edX mission so important, and how do you embody it?

The edX mission is so important to me because I hear every day how learners are benefitting from the work we are doing and the worldwide impact we are having. We have over 40 million learners on edX–and each of their stories reinforces my commitment to doing more and doing better each day. Here’s one of my favorites.

Maggie was laid off from her administrative job in the early weeks of the pandemic. To make ends meet, she became a courier for Postmates, a delivery service platform that works with edX to provide its employees access to our course catalog as a benefit. She enrolled in HarvardX’s Justice course, which opened her mind to think about careers in social work, customer service, or human resources–all industries she hadn’t considered before. Now, she works in recruiting at Amazon, where she continues to take edX courses to help her move her career forward.

Maggie is just one example of the incredible learners who come to edX to improve their lives. With 2U, I look forward to hearing more of these stories of impact as we activate our mission and passion around expanding access to education and positively transforming society at large.

Let’s switch gears to the news that broke on Tuesday: You joined 2U as chief open education officer. What does your new role entail, and what impact do you hope to make?

As 2U’s first chief open education officer, I will continue to be a steward of the edX mission, working with learners, educators, our partners, and governments to increase access to high-quality education, and to reimagine education quality both online and on-campus. I will also serve as one of 2U’s representatives on Open edX’s new Technical Oversight Committee, which is responsible for guiding the technical direction and vision of the open source platform and community to support learning access and outcomes around the world.

I truly believe edX and 2U will have a lasting impact on the future of education. Together, we create one of the world’s leading learning platforms, and with clear mission alignment, we will empower all students to realize their full potential. I’m excited to be part of the next chapter of edX and take the edX mission to the next level by reimagining education and increasing access to learning for everyone, everywhere.

Your dream is to create a modular, stackable education system. What does that mean, and how do you foresee 2U helping to see that vision through?

To me, a fully modular, stackable education system is learner-centric and puts their needs first. Such a system unbundles education into Lego-like blocks, which have two key properties: each block offers a skills outcome and industry-recognized credential, and the blocks stack up into flexible pathways leading to career credentials and full degrees.

edX’s MicroMasters and MicroBachelors programs are examples, which were innovative in unbundling traditional education and building non-linear pathways to achieve desired outcomes. They also broke the mold for credit-eligible learning, with each program offering transferable college credit to put learners on the path towards a comprehensive degree, whether completed online or on-campus.

With 2U, I hope to create a future of education that is built on the stacking of modular credentials into new types of degrees that meet learners wherever they are, at any stage of life. Together with our partners–universities and employers alike–I look forward to fostering greater acceptance and acknowledgment of the value of modular learning and creating more credit pathways into degree programs. I also look forward to creating more multi-institution stackable pathways towards full degrees. 

What excites you most about edX and 2U coming together? Why do you believe in the power of our combination?

I believe in the power of this combination for two reasons.

First, because I know that 2U and edX are truly aligned in our mission. I’ve said this from the first day the acquisition was announced–there would not have been a deal without Chip suggesting the radical idea that 2U would agree to a set of mission commitments that embodied edX’s non-profit DNA. These were the grounding principles of the whole combination, and what I truly believe will help us create a quantum acceleration on the original edX mission and make us an unstoppable force for good. 

The second is product synergy in our two organizations. For our learners, I’m most excited that this synergy will provide them with unprecedented access to education and learning choices–from free to degree. I see the edX platform becoming the one-stop destination learners need in order to reach their goals, whatever they may be.