October 24, 2013; Guardian


According to his home page at MIT, where he serves as a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Anant Agarwal is also leading multiple computer-related projects for the university and hacks on Websim “in his spare time.” It is somewhat mind-boggling, then, to consider that on top of all of this, Agarwal doubles as president of edX, an international, nonprofit online learning initiative started by MIT and Harvard in which 1.5 million students have already enrolled. As president of edX, Agarwal has become not only a strong advocate for his own organization, but also for the niche for MOOCs in an increasingly interconnected world.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Agarwal explained that edX was founded with a $60 million investment and three goals: “to increase access to education for students all over the world; to improve campus education by bringing in online technologies to campus; and to do research around learning.” In an appearance over the summer on The Colbert Report, Agarwal held his own, and stressed that edX students “have great fun with hip courses from some of the best universities in the world—for free.”

In addition to Agarwal’s own personal appearances, edX blogs about new partnerships (Georgetown University, the IMF, and the University of El Salvador) and research findings from the organization’s first year. The organization also maintains a blog on tumblr where students from all over the world, such as Ifeoma Aya from Nigeria, share their experiences with edX.


As an established professor, Agarwal is straightforward about both the benefits and the limitations of online learning to higher education. He told the Guardian, “Instead of taking away jobs, I think it’s going to make education much better for students and more exciting.” He added, “As a teacher, I don’t have to give the same old lectures every year, telling the same old jokes; instead, I can use online videos, and students can pause me, and if they really want to, mute me.”


Agarwal is also adamant about the importance of what he refers to as the “magic of campus” for students, which comes from inspiration from teachers and collaboration with other students. For Agarwal, and for many others in the education field, a “blended learning model” that mixes online and in-person components is the wave of the future.

The question of how edX will ultimately generate income from its free classes to sustain the nonprofit organization has been an ongoing question for many and no doubt a source of attention for Agarwal. In response to Stephen Colbert’s asking why edX would offer classes for free, Agarwal sheepishly responded, “Enlightened self-interest—it’s good for everybody.” As a means to moving past enlightenment and toward the cold cash, however, this week the Atlantic reported that Agarwal has negotiated new income-generating partnerships with France and China via its Open edX platform. The deal gives both countries access to edX software and technical advice for their emerging MOOCs, for which edX will get an annual fee.

As Robinson Meyer observed in the Atlantic, “It’s a seemingly irregular way to do business, but the environment of education, in all its market-esque complexity, is anything but regular.” With these new partnerships, Agarwal, the multi-tasking, moonlighting professor, might have just hit upon an important new business model for edX, along with new opportunities for MOOCs everywhere.—Anne Eigeman