Podcast: Anant Agarwal on Extended Access to Education

Anant Agarwal (@agarwaledu) grew up in southwestern India. After studying hard in high school he gained entrance to IIT Madras. Long train rides took him to the campus in southeast India where he took a degree in Electrical Engineering (before the days when Computer Science degrees were prevalent). He taught himself to code on an IBM mainframe using punchcards transported in the damp weather on the back of a bicycle. He did well enough at IIT to make it to Stanford where he earned a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Agarwal joined the faculty at MIT 32 years ago. He took over leadership at the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), a pioneer in modern computing.

In 2001, MIT launched Open Courseware, an early leader in making the world’s best courses available to the world–including Agarwal’s electronics course. A decade later, Agarwal led a planning effort for platform partnership between MIT and Harvard. In 2012, he launched nonprofit edX (@edXOnline).

Now the world’s largest learning platform with more than 50 million learners in every country on earth, edX hosts more than 2,500 courses from 140 top institutions.

edX now bundles courses into certificates and degrees at affordable prices. A series of open courses can be bundled into a MicroBachelors for a small fee. High school learners make up about 10% of the enrollments. Dozens of MicroMasters are available at affordable prices.

Asynchronous college credit courses–even a bundle of 3 like a MicroBachelors–are viable options for motivated high school juniors and seniors especially now during school closures where local districts are not providing services. edX also has a vault of online self-paced AP courses for high school students.

Agarwal sees the growth in certificate programs and MicroMasters as supplemental to traditional HigherEd. “Open admission, modularity, stackability, and incredible choices support learning through life.”

Success skills, as well as tech skills, can be developed through online courses according to Agarwal. He heard “Loud and clear that soft skills and leadership are valued by universities and companies.” An example of courses promoting teamwork, collaboration and inclusive leadership is a course on Storytelling in the Workplace from Rochester Institute of Technology

Key Takeaways:
[1:35] Anant shares what led him to the Indian Institute of Technology Madras.
[3:07] Anant speaks about the quality of education he felt he received at IIT Madras.
[4:45] After IIT, Anant went to Standford to study Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He speaks a bit about his experience there.
[5:31] Anant speaks about his 32-year career at MIT and the various positions he has served.
[6:42] Anant shares the quick origin story of the Computer Science and AI Lab (or CSAIL as it is better known).
[7:07] Anant shares the genesis of edX.
[9:34] What does Anant believe to be the first real Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)?
[11:20] What does Anant think are the pros and cons of making edX an open, non-profit platform?
[15:00] Nate McClennon speaks about Getting Smart’s new book, The Power of Place.
[16:09] Would Anant say that MOOCs are very much alive and well today?
[18:41] Is moving towards shorter skill-oriented certificates and away from degrees a big future trend?
[21:27] Are they creating more corporate partnerships with edX? And are they seeing more corporate employers sponsoring online learning?
[23:57] Does Anant see the tech giants (such as Amazon, Google, etc.) as new competitors in technical education, partners, or both?
[25:32] As a non-profit, does it make it easier to partner with tech giants in technical education?
[26:42] How do professionals continuously build tech skills, success/soft skills, and job skills through edX?
[28:41] Does edX have any high school partners or high school students on their platform?
[30:06] Anant highlights some of the new and interesting courses on edX.
[31:22] Anant shares what’s on the roadmap for edX.
[33:41] Tom thanks Anant for joining the podcast and for his leadership in this space.

Mentioned in This Episode:
Anant Agarwal
Harvard University
The Education Commission
MIT OpenCourseWare
Khan Academy
The Power of Place: Authentic Learning Through Place-Based Education, by Tom Vander Ark,
Dr. Emily Liebtag, and Nate McClennon

MicroMasters Programs — edX

For more, see:

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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