E332: Anant Agarwal President of EdX-TWiST



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On this episode of TWiST @jason travels to Boston to sit down with Anant Agarwal, founder of EdX.


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Jason: Hey, everybody. Hey, everybody. It’s Jason Calacanis. This is ThisWeekIn Startups. I’m here in Boston and Cambridge. Today on the program, Anant Agarwal. Did I pronounce it even close?

Anant: Good enough.

Jason: Anant Agarwal is with me. He is the president of EdX. Which is changing the face of education. It’s going to be a very interesting episode. Stick with us.

TWiST title sequence.

Jason: Hey, everybody. Hey, everybody. It’s Jason Calacanis. We are here at the Launch Festival. It’s March 3 and the festival is starting tomorrow. I’m getting all the tables set up all the chairs. Just last week I was using GoTo Meeting to meet with all these great companies and to show off their great products. Now they’re going to be on stage here in front of 5,800 people registered for the event. I just want to take a moment to thank the sponsor of ThisWeekIn Startups, GoTo Meeting. Meeting is Believing. As you guys know I’ve been using the product for years. They were gracious enough to support the program when I needed help. You know to help fund the program and get all these great founder interviews. I use the HD Faces feature all the time. When I was up here in San Francisco I used my iPad mini to do the camera. This is an incredible moment. I was using GoTo Meeting on my iPad and I had GoTo Meeting on my laptop. I was using the GoTo Meeting iPad mini to telecast, stream my iPhone. Cause I was showing someone an app on it. So I just set it up. It was incredible. It was like I had a little production studio with GoTo Meeting. I’m really happy to announce that they’re going to give a great contest. As you know, it’s winter, it’s freezing, it’s cold. If you could host a meeting anywhere, where would it be and why? That’s the question I need you to answer. Where would you host your meeting and why? Like, for me, it would probably be Kauai on Hanalei Bay. But, where would you host yours and why? Tweet your answer to #twistipad as well as #gotomeeting. Yes. Twist. Where would you host your meeting from and why? #twistipad and #gotomeeting. You gotta do that in like 140 characters so it’s not going to be easy. Of course go get a 30 day trial. Visit GoTo Meeting, click on the ‘try it free’ button, use the promo code TWIST. Yes, that’s right. Go to GoTo Meeting. Visit GoTo Meeting, click on the ‘try it free’ button and use the promo code TWIST. Bryce, you gonna laugh during the ad? Come on, I got this copy… That was a great ad read. Hey everybody. It’s fantastic. Listen. Thank you so much to my friends at GoTo Meeting. Meeting is Believing. I need you to go ahead and thank them. Wish these 53 companies launching on stage at the Launch Festival luck. We’ll see you next time on ThisWeekIn Startups. Let’s get back to the program. This is a pretty good interview, isn’t it?

Jason: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the program. As you know we track startups. ThisWeekIn Startups has been going strong for 4 years now. Over 100K people download every episode. Sometime last year we started to see a major change in education. People flipping the classroom. Everybody from Khan Academy to Coursera. Just a bunch of amazing technology. Of course we would be remiss if we didn’t notice EdX. This incredible startup in Cambridge that was well funded by a couple of people you might have heard of. I said, “Wow. We gotta get these guys on the show. They’re doing incredible work with some huge partners.” So here we are in Cambridge. I’m out here for a board meeting. I joined the board of a company called Dyn in New Hampshire. I said, “Hey. Let me swing by Boston and get a couple of great interviews in.” So with me Anant Agarwal is the president of EdX. Welcome to the program.

Anant: Thank you. My pleasure.

Jason: So tell me, what is EdX? How was it founded? When was it founded? Who actually created all this?

Anant: So EdX… I like to think of EdX as a nonprofit startup, if there is such a thing. It first came up as MITX. This was in December of 2011. The idea there was to create these new courses from MIT and offer them to the world. A number of universities connected with us and said, “Hey, look. Why don’t you broaden it.” Our mission was to have an open source platform and free education to students around the world. We’re very synergistic where they were thinking about themselves. Discussions happened between Harvard and MIT. So MIT and Harvard teamed up and formed EdX in May of 2012. They each invested… They committed $30M apiece for a total of $60M and that created EdX. We launched our first course in spring of last year. With very little marketing we had 155K students sign up for the course.

Jason: Wow.

Anant: That is… That number is greater than the total number of alumni of MIT in it’s 150 year history.

Jason: Wow.

Anant: So we’ve got off to a great start. We offer courses from a number or our university partners. Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, the UT (University of Texas system), Georgetown, Wellesley. They put a course on the platform and students around the world take these courses.

Jason: What was the initial reaction back in 2011 when somebody said, “Hey, why don’t we tape our professors and put it on the internet for free?” I’m assuming the first manifestation of an online course was just videotaping the professor?

Anant: It actually turned out that just as when television first started they had the radio announcers reading the news

Jason: Sure.

Anant: Now if you go to CNN or any of the latest news shows they don’t look anything like a person reading news. It’s an institute. It’s people embedded. It’s like virtual reality.

Jason: Sure.

Anant: So in the same manner, when the very early courses came out, which was videotaping lectures and putting those videos on the web.

Jason: Which was revolutionary in and of itself.

Anant: A revolution… Exactly.

Jason: Everybody looks at MIT and says, “Wow. You have to get into MIT.” Now you’ve taken MIT and given it for free to the world.

Anant: Exactly. So OpenCourseWare came out and offered these free videos and took the course content from existing courses and put that on the web. EdX takes it to a new level. So if OpenCourseWare is about putting course content online, EdX is about offering courses. Where the additional components or one is there is a community of students. The community interacts with each other. Second is this interactivity. You’re interacting with simulations and interacting with content and getting assessed instantly, getting instant feedback. The third component that is new is getting a certificate at the end of it.

Jason: Wow.

Anant: So if you take a course from Berkeley, for example, and you pass the course you will get a certificate from BerkeleyX. So the X has become… We’re noticing that the X has become somewhat of a brand. Somewhat of a powerful EdX brand. Anything that EdX touches seems to get the name X.

Jason: Right. So now when that was first introduced I wonder what was the discussion like of, “Why are we here as an educational institution?” It must have come up. “Are we here to have this small group of people get this extraordinary high content education or are we here to give a large group of people something maybe with a little less intimacy, a little bit less high context, but to get the message out to a larger group?” Were there people who were… I wonder… saying, “That’s outside of our mission.” How did you get them to sort of… Or did everybody say, “You know what? This is great. It’s additive. Why wouldn’t we want to help people around the world.” What was the reaction?

Anant: So this really goes back to… Why are MIT and Harvard and our partner institutions really doing it? What’s motivating all of us in really doing this? There are really two motivations. One of them of course is to increase access to education to students world wide. You know, our campuses can take only certain number of students. I’ve served on admissions committees myself. We could easily see ourselves admitting 2 or 3 times as many students as we do. But we just can’t. We don’t have the capacity. So part of our mission is to educate students around the world. If we can educate much more students around the world then that is a good thing. It’s simply an extension of our core mission. The second and key reason why we’re doing it is we want to improve campus education. We really want to rethink and re-imagine how education happens on our own campuses.

Jason: So how does getting 155K people around the world to take an MIT course inform the actual course on MITs campus with 150 people in the room? Or whatever it is.

Anant: So one of the big things that are happening with online education. If you really go down to the nuts and bolts of what’s going on, we look at the root, we’re really applying technology to education in a concerted manner. If you go back in history… If you go back the past several hundred years we really haven’t had any major innovation in education since the printing press. If you went into a classroom of 50-70 years ago it would look exactly the same today. What we are doing is applying technology to education in a really concerted manner. You know, in terms of bringing instant feedback, as an example. By having the computer grade problems and answers students get instant feedback. Studies have shown that instant feedback to students demonstrably improves learning outcomes.

Jason: Interesting.

Anant: By applying computation to learning, through video, through interactivity, through multimedia, through the social networking component, through this whole concept of active learning where you’re teaching students by asking questions and doing it interactively on the learning platform that is demonstrably improving learning outcomes. I think that bringing these technologies back on campus we can significantly re-imagine how we do things on campus as well.

Jason: Interesting. So if I’m taking a course, I’m taking little micro quizzes or interactive elements, I guess. Where maybe I have to answer some questions to keep that moving forward and it engages me on a deeper level, the learning is there. If somebody actually doesn’t get it they don’t get left behind. I guess is a big part of it.

Anant: That’s right. So this is called learning sequences which interweaves video with interactive exercises. Students go through that and they find that they’re not able to answer something then multiple choice is open to them. They can go back and review the video again, they can pause it, they can rewind. They can learn at their own pace which you cannot do in a classroom. In a classroom you can’t rewind the professor. You cannot even mute the professor. But online you can do all of these things. Furthermore, in a large classroom, it’s certainly hard to ask questions. So you typically bottle up your questions and you just ignore them. But online we have discussion forums embedded right next to each video and exercise. So students can ask those questions right in place. Then carry on a discussion, for example, right when they’re going through the material. This way they get other either other students answering the questions, which is generally true. Or sometimes professors answering the question. This way they get instant feedback with their problem as well.

Jason: I would suppose that some percentage of students are introverts as opposed to extroverts. The extroverts, if I remember college correctly 20 years ago, would sometimes take over the class and the introverts wouldn’t get a chance to ask questions. In this kind of class an introvert maybe isn’t in as much as a disadvantage. Also, the students who are getting so far ahead they have something to do: help the students who have fallen behind.

Anant: Exactly. I think we see a lot of that happening where… I’ve sat in a number of classes in the bricks and mortar setting myself where in a classroom the same student will attempt to ask all the questions and answer them themselves. It could be quite frustrating for all of the other students. In an online setting everybody gets to ask. If you have a question you can ask a question. The anonymity of the situation, I think is very compelling. That enables students to answer questions without necessarily feeling that the whole world is looking at them. Everybody gets a shot at asking a question. Those who are ahead get to teach. Many students are telling us that they are learning by teaching. That’s been very compelling.

Jason: Is part of this effort and the interest in this effort that people feel that as the cost of education has gone up in society, it seems that everything that we do is getting more efficient. But the cost of education keeps going up and up for whatever reasons. Is part of this to make college a better deal for people, to make it more efficient, to make sure that the skills coming out of the school are there. Now of course a Harvard or MIT probably doesn’t suffer from people feeling that the value isn’t there because they’re such established brands if you will. But for other schools, maybe people are wondering is there a gap between how much I paid for this school and my ability to earn income afterwards? That skills gap people call that. The skills gap people talk about.

Anant: I think there’s an absolute issue in our whole education system. You know, as a professor education has gotten so expensive that as a professor a typical professor would not be able to send 2 or 3 kids to college paying full tuition.

Jason: Right.

Anant: It is almost a joke. So something clearly has to be done. But I like to think of what we’re doing as solving two issues. Of course we can make education such that we can reduce the cost of education. I think that by being able to automatically grade questions we don’t have to be around grading it. The students could watch videos on their own time. So professors don’t have to lecture week after week, hour after hour. There is some efficiency that can be brought to bare through technology. But at the same time we are improving quality as well. I like to think of it as improving efficiency of education which is the output divided by the cost. So if you’re producing much better quality for the same cost that is still a good thing.

Jason: Yeah. More leverage yeah.

Anant: Much more leverage. Or we could produce the same quality at a lower cost. So I like to think of the ratio of your quality output of what you’re outputting to what goes in. I think we will improve efficiency which is that ratio. That’s the key that I would like to see.

Jason: You can do it on both ends. Because if I’m doing the course from India or China or the Middle East even, in a tribal area where maybe I don’t have super access to it I can actually take the MIT course and get a certificate that I took the MIT course?

Anant: That is correct.

Jason: Yeah.

Anant: So if you take the course from anywhere in the world and you passed the course you would get a certificate. If it’s an MIT course you would get a certificate from MITX or HarvardX or BerkeleyX or what have you.

Jason: Which is the full on logo with an X next to it. It’s the same word.

Anant: It’s the same word with an X next to it. The reason that it’s MITX or BerkeleyX and not Berkeley or MIT is that the campus experience is very different. So when you go to campus and you take the class on campus, you get a degree on campus, it’s a different experience. It’s not the same thing.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So it would not be appropriate to provide the same certificate or the same degree. It is really different. But it’s extremely valuable none the less.

Jason: Right. But is the knowledge different? Are the quizzes that I’m going to take, the little interactive pieces going to be different than the course at MIT or are they going to sync up?

Anant: So the EdX courses match the rigor of the campus counterparts. So at EdX we care deeply about quality. The rigor of the campus course matches the rigor of the MOOC course. As an example, when we taught our first course in spring of last year, the circuits and electronics course, we had 20 students on campus take the same course. Those students are doing the same exercises, the same exams, the same material. So I think in terms of content and delivery of content and learning from a core standpoint, I think we can match the rigor of an on campus class. There’s some pieces that are completely hard to match. Like things like a real physical laboratory where you can smell a burning resistor.

Jason: Sure.

Anant: We have online laboratories at EdX. EdX is pretty unique in that category. These online labs really give you close to the feeling of an on campus laboratory. The course is very much of the same rigor.

Jason: Do the professors see a difference between the top students taking the course online vs. the top students taking the course in class? In other words, are they as good?

Anant: I can speak for myself.

Jason: Yeah.

Anant: If an on campus student got a high score and an online student got the same score and they did the work diligently, to me, they both learned the same from a core standpoint.

Jason: Yeah.

Anant: The students on campus may be getting other things. They did the work in communities and groups and other… But from a core standpoint I would view them as very similar in terms of having mastered the material. In fact, one of our students was a 15 year old from Mongolia.

Jason: A 15 year old? 1. 5. Yeah.

Anant: In high school from Mongolia. He was… by the name of Batushenk. He took this really hard MIT class as part of a blended class that one of his teacher in high school had put together. There he had a perfect score on the exam. So he had a perfect score in a sophomore/junior level MIT class.

Jason: Wow.

Anant: Perfect. 100%. He’s now applied to MIT at Berkeley. I would say that his mastery of the subject is comparable to the mastery of the subject of a student at any of our top institutions that get the same score.

Jason: This must be very exciting from an admissions standpoint. That you can create essentially a Farm League. If these students are compelled to go take a course 3 or 4 years before they would be matriculated, then excel at it 2 or 3 years before, you’re casting such a wider net. You could find so many more brighter minds. Which in the previous application process you wouldn’t have that. Your SATs or your 4 year performance at a high school in India or Bangladesh, whichever country that just wouldn’t afford them that.

Anant: I think it goes beyond that. Beyond the Farm League. I think this democratizes accessibility. It democratizes the application process. So in the past, universities for better or for worse, look at scores like SATs and other scores and so on. Often times people in rich communities are able to get access to a lot of training centers and they have the right background and things like that. But here, anybody with an internet connection from anywhere in the world can take an EdX course and demonstrate mastery of the material, learn the material, now can put that on their resume as they apply to colleges. In fact Batushenk has applied to MIT and to Berkeley to come in as an undergraduate student to our universities.

Jason: I wonder how many courses he would have already completed by the time he gets here?

Anant: Interesting question.

Jason: Yeah. So the certificate, which seems incredible that you were able to pull that off. Like to actually be able convince all the constituents that we should give a certificate. To an employer… I’m an employer… a certificate to me from MITX or actually having gone to MIT, I don’t think… I don’t speak for all employers… but I don’t think I would perceive too much difference between someone who on a skills mastery level did the course online vs. in person. Is that the experience so far? What does your intuition tell you how high tech employers might look at these certificates?

Anant: Employers are telling us that certainly they put a lot value on these certificates. It tells them that the student took initiative. Which is interesting. It’s not just about getting high scores. It is that this software engineer or this historian took the initiative and went and took this course and did well in the course. They understand that if they did well in a course from UT Austin or from one of our top institutions that it means something. So irrespective of where they are from the world, now there’s a currency out there, making it a certificate or sequence of certificates from these universities. Employers are telling us that they value that. Of course they won’t hire somebody just purely based on a certificate.

Jason: No.

Anant: You know, it enables them to get a foot in the door, get the interview. Then of course, an employer is going to look at a number of other factors as well. Certainly, getting a certificate and doing well in one of these courses or sequences of courses, it’s certainly something that you can show and be proud of.

Jason: It’s very interesting that employers are looking for motivation as well. They are looking for people who have the chutzpah, the drive and showing that you took these courses when you didn’t have to.

Anant: Exactly. Initiative is a key component where this person is taking initiative to do these things. That’s a good thing.

Jason: So much of society and people who are coming up in society, people have claimed, “Oh, my God. The doors aren’t open to me.” You know. “I can’t get into Harvard or MIT. It’s biased.” People have claimed the SAT is biased because it can be gamed if you have the $2K a year coach. I’m not saying that you’re saying that. I think I pretty confidently could say that because I did see that happen when I was in high school in Brooklyn. People who could afford tutors did better. It makes sense. Now that you’ve democratized it, is there going to be the ability to claim that we have these institutions holding people back? What does that do for society if people don’t embrace it? Or only a small group of people embrace it? Cause we can’t now say that MIT or Harvard or any university, because there’s a limited capacity, is holding people back. Anybody can go to Harvard. Anybody can go to MIT now. Not only that, you guys have actually given them the certificate to go to an employer. If somebody doesn’t do that it’s on them isn’t it?

Anant: Well you know I would not go that far. There’s still a lot of impediments to students. If you’re in a back woods village in India, you don’t have internet access. You don’t have a computer. So you cannot access the course.

Jason: Sure.

Anant: But, MOOCs and online courses have certainly democratized education on orders of magnitude. If you expanded the access to high quality learning to just a much larger number of students than ever before. So I think you’re right. I think people simply have a much better shot at demonstrating that they can master the material than before.

Jason: What country… you said you had 155K people sign up for the first one… What country surprised you at the amount of people who signed up? Or city?

Anant: Columbia.

Jason: Columbia, South America?

Anant: Yes.

Jason: Not District of…

Anant: Exactly. South America. So we had 155K students take the course. As you might imagine the largest number was from The United States.

Jason: Makes sense.

Anant: It was close to 27%-30%. Second was India. Again, no surprise. Third was the UK. India and UK were about 13%-15%, there about. Again, not too much of a surprise there. Number 4 was Columbia. That surprised me. When I talked about this I asked people a question as to, “Who do you think number four was?”

Jason: China, Korea, Japan.

Anant: Every country, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Germany, France. The list goes on and on. They never think of Columbia. But Columbia was number 4. That was very surprising.

Jason: Was is just some… there was some huge newspaper story about it that drove it do you think? Have you been able to uncover why?

Anant: I don’t have any… I have absolutely no idea.

Jason: But what a wonderful surprise.

Anant: It’s an incredible surprise.

Jason: A wonderful surprise.

Anant: A wonderful surprise. Absolutely.

Jason: Yeah. It’s fascinating. What does it cost for the certificate? What goes into that? Do you actually have to go to a testing center to take the certificate or is it done online? There’s a cost obviously to getting this certificate. Do you take the course for free and then you pay for paper?

Anant: So we have two forms of certificates. So you take the course the course is free. Right now we have an honor code certificate that is also free.

Jason: Honor code certificate?

Anant: You sign the honor code then you’re on your own. You promise that you will abide by the honor code rules and you take the exam.

Jason: You didn’t have somebody else take the quizzes.

Anant: Exactly. Among other things. You did the work diligently yourself. Right now even that is free. We have a proctor certificate where you can go to a testing center off Pearson Vue and take a proctored exam. There’s a fee for that. That’s $95.

Jason: $95. Not $950. Not $9,500.

Anant: If you go take the proctored exam and you pass it you receive a proctor certificate. That’s $95.

Jason: $95? The equivalent course at a university would be thousands of dollars. Why so little? It seems almost just absurdly cheap. $95 is such a low fee.

Anant: Excuse me.

Jason: Yeah. No problem.

Anant: So this again is a pilot price. We need to figure out what is the right model, what is the right pricing? We may also want to change the pricing by country.

Jason: Ah.

Anant: Because you know $95 is still a large number in India or sub-Saharan Africa.

Jason: There it could be $25 and here it could be $250.

Anant: Yeah. So we have talked about varying the price according to per capita or various other metrics. So this is a pilot price. We’re trying to figure out what it should be. We certainly want it to be very, very low cost.

Jason: Let’s talk about the teachers and their reaction to the evolution of the classroom and the evolution of the student body. What teachers are embracing this? Is there resistance from a certain group of teachers? What is that resistance? Cause, gosh, there must be people who have been teaching for 30, 40, 50 years who when they look at this say, “I don’t know if I really want to do this just everyday. I kind of like going up and lecturing everyday. I don’t want to have to do the lecture at night then have people come in and do worksheets. I want to do it the way I’ve always done it.” What do you say to those teachers?

Anant: Professors that are producing the courses, I think, are very excited by it. I think as a professor you want to reach students. You want to teach, you want to see students get that aha moment where they suddenly learn something when they did not learn something before. If professors can reach a much larger number of students that’s just amazing for a professor. Professors just absolutely love that. We’ve also taught courses in a blended model in universities. So they taught a course… San Jose State licensed one of our courses and taught it at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley, California for a semester the fall of 2012. There a professor offered the course on the campus. Students would do the videos and exercises and so on, the learning sequences, on their own time. They would come in to the class, interact with the professor, have their discussions. The professor would teach them new material or answer questions. The professor who taught the course was absolutely excited about the whole thing. He mentioned, in the beginning, he started off wondering, “Hey. The professors are supposed to lecture.” But here it was a flipped classroom type model. It’s just completely different. So professors are asking themselves, “How do I…? This is a new way of teaching.” He was very excited towards the end where he connected with students and so on.

Jason: You don’t need every professor to embrace this right now. There’s going to be a group of professors who excel in this new format, correct?

Anant: Yes. I think this is a new style of teaching and different professors will take to it in different ways. So some people like to lecture. Some people don’t like to lecture. Some people like the apprenticeship model, the one on one interaction. So I think different people like different types of models.

Jason: Yeah. Hey, everybody. Hey, everybody. It’s Jason Calacanis. I’m here at the Launch Festival. Look at all these people working here. Amazing. Over 1,000 seats… Hey Brandice when I say that that’s when you pan over. Pan over. There you go. There’s my cameraman. OK. Here we go. Coming back around. Just wanted to take a moment to thank Hiscox. As you know, they do customized coverage and competitive pricing on small business insurance. When you buy insurance directly through the insurer instead of your agent you’re going to get tailored coverage. You’re going to a very simple process. You just go online, answer a couple of questions and Hiscox will email you all of your docs. It’s a great value. Competitive rates for your business at $22.50 a month. They have a passion for service. Their customers reported 96%. That’s a pretty high net promoter score. 96% of customers would recommend it to a friend. They do things like professional liability, general liability, business owners policy, workman’s comp all that great stuff. Get a quote. Get a quote. Please go try and get a quote. I have all my startups do this. I ask them to go get a quote. HiscoxUSA.com/smallbiz. Hiscox has been working with ThisWeekIn Startups for a long time. People like Chris Sacca on the program used it. He sent me his receipt like a couple of days later and was like, “I used your product and it’s great. It saved me so much time. I didn’t have to go to all these meetings with people I didn’t want to waste time with. I got it done so quickly.” So please, please protect your business. Go to HiscoxUSA.com/smallbiz. Listen to your Uncle Jason. He knows best. Go ahead and thank them @Hiscoxsmallbiz on Twitter. Let’s get back to the interview. It’s a pretty good interview going on right now. If I do say so myself.

Jason: So let’s talk about those objects that your creating. These learning objects. Most teachers are not videographers. So making the video, I’m assuming that’s your job at EdX. Making these modules most professors don’t have the ability to write code and make a flash module or an HTML5 or an iOS app or something that, you know, gives you quizzes. Is that the work of EdX to watch those professors teach and say, “What modules can we put in here for compliance?” You know, just interactivity and build those for them?

Anant: So a number of things are happening. First of all EdX is building sophisticated tools that will enable professors to create courses much more easily. So you certainly do not want professors to have to write code in order to create a problem. So we built a tool called EdX Studio that enables professors to author problems, many types of problems, with ease. Where they just type some text and it turns into a multiple choice question. Or you type some text and it turns into a numeric answer or an equation and so on. So we build these tools. We’re also looking for ways to make… Video capture, at the end of the day, you have to have a camera or you have to have a tablet to capture it. So, there we are working with professors and offering training and so on to help them come up to speed on how they could use these new media. So there are a number of ways in which we are doing that. Universities themselves… So EdX is certainly helping there. EdX is offering help and support to some of the professors. But to make it scale we are working with universities to help them create their own internal facilities where they can do video editing and video capture and training and so on.

Jason: Is there going to be a star system for teachers? You know, we saw it happen in a lot of different verticals. Chefs used to just cook our food in the 80s. You knew maybe one or two chefs’ names then the Food Network came out. All these platforms came out and chefs became almost like celebrities. Right? Actually they are celebrities. Full blown celebrities. Now you have professors that maybe were known by a small group of people that were allowed in the kitchen. But now if 155K people love this person’s circuit board course and they love this other course they teach. Are we going to see this emergence of the celebrity professor. Is that a good thing?

Anant: I think so. I think we will see the emergence of rock start teachers and I think it’s a good thing.

Jason: Yeah.

Anant: Watching a kid grow up in a society where if some person can take a round object and throw it through a ring and become a rock star, why should we just have sports people be rock stars? Why not teachers? I think it’s a good thing that teachers can be rock stars. So I think that is happening. I think that is a good thing. But even there, I think there will be rating systems as well. Some of these are popping up where systems are rating courses. In fact we want to introduce one on our own sites which rates our courses. Not just the teacher but rates the whole course and so on. So students can then decide what courses they want to take, so professors can get feedback as to what’s working, what’s not working. So I think all of this is a good thing and will help everybody improve.

Jason: Yeah. What about compensation for teachers? If I am a teacher and I am this rock star teacher, should I get $5 for every student who gets a certificate? If 10K of them do it, do I get a $50K bonus for getting those 10K students to take the certificate? Is that going to emerge eventually where eventually where they will be compensated a magnitude more than just a normal teacher who teaches a physical class?

Anant: Well first of all there’s many ways to get compensated.

Jason: Sure.

Anant: Most teachers that I know are doing it not for money. A lot of them are doing it because they love to teach. They could get much better paying jobs elsewhere. So to many of them to be able to reach a larger group of students and watch that aha moment amongst a much larger group of students is rewarding itself.

Jason: Right. Well you said earlier professors can’t afford to send their kids to the schools that they go to. So why shouldn’t they be compensated extra?

Anant: I see absolutely no objection to compensation in one form or the other. Whether it is in just feeling good about themselves. Whether it be fulfillment, whether it’s monetary compensation, whether it’s prestige. I think any of these are fine. All this is new.

Jason: Yeah. It’s emerging.

Anant: These are all emerging features. I think we will have to figure out… universities are discussing this as we speak in terms of how… Once you begin getting revenues in particular. Right now the courses are free and the certificates are also free. Once we begin producing revenue it’s going to be a question of how do we compensate the professors? How do we compensate the teaching assistants? How do we compensate the university. So I think all of these questions will have to be thought out and answered.

Jason: Will the courses eventually be paid upfront do you think? Or is it always going to be free to experience it and just pay for paper? Pay for interactivity? What’s your vision of the future?

Anant: I think the vision of the future is I think increased access. I would very much like to see all courses be available for free. That is anybody in the world should be able to take a course for free. Education really should be something that is available to everybody. It should be a basic right for all humans.

Jason: Even a graduate degree.

Anant: I would like to see some level of education be available for free to everybody like the air degree. So I would like to see some area be available for free. At the same time we also have to sustain ourself.

Jason: Right.

Anant: EdX has to sustain itself. The universities that are producing the courses have to sustain themselves. So clearly there has to be some way, some revenue model, some business model where they can sustain themselves. There are a number of ways in which we are thinking about it. Where we can offer free courses yet find some way to get some revenue for sustainability.

Jason: I wonder has anybody created an in person like experience with the online courses that have emerged? We here about the Khan Academy which is obviously K-12 and doing wonderful work. People are starting to use those videos in the classroom. Right? Sort of the whole charming story of Sal Khan as people start using his videos. What would stop somebody from saying, “I’m going to create a 25 person classroom in India, in Colombia and bring together students who want to take it. Charge them to come but use the online course work to get them the certificates and sort of be like almost an extra level of facilitation. Would that be a bad thing? Have you heard of…

Anant: There’s a number of examples of things like that happening.

Jason: There are?

Anant: Yeah. In Mongolia a high school teacher got together 20 students in the high school and they all took this course together. It was a MOOC course and it brought them all together. Really the students are paying tuition to the high school it’s subsidized by the state or whatever. So that happened there. We offered an EdX course at San Jose State University where the course was offered by the university where a local faculty member offered the course in a blended model. So they used EdX materials. Think of it as a new text book if you will. They offered the course locally. So this is happening in a number of situations.

Jason: Yeah. It’s a good thing. It’s almost like they’re becoming this sort of extension of the EdX… Facilitators of the EdX brand.

Anant: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jason: Are textbooks the net losers in all of this? The overpriced, you know, textbooks and the monopoly where it just feels you’re just getting totally ripped off. Are they the ones that lose?

Anant: I don’t think so. In many of the disciplines when you apply technology in a big way… I like to think of online learning as a rising tide that will lift all boats. So with textbook vendors we’re working with textbook vendors. They give us a free copy of the book to place on our site, an electronic copy. What our book publisher partners are finding is that because we make the book available for free their sales are going through the roof.

Jason: They make a PDF for free…

Anant: They make not a PDF but they make .PNG or other…

Jason: Gotcha. Pages.

Anant: Less sophisticated versions of pages for the site so students get something.

Jason: Then they get sold on the big version or full version.

Anant: They get sold on either the PDF or some other e-reader copy or a paper copy.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So they get a discount there and they can buy that directly from the publisher through a click through from our site.

Jason: For $50 or $100 or something.

Anant: Whatever the number is.

Jason: Which is reasonable considering the course is free.

Anant: Considering the course is free. So the publishers are finding that… Elsevier for instance. They found that the sales of the books that are used for our course, Elsevier book, the sales tripled.

Jason: Interesting.

Anant: So not only that…

Jason: Because the market size expanded 100X or 1000X.

Anant: The market size expanded, you know, 1000X. So that was one. The second was, it also brought into reach of the scores to a wholly different category of learners. So for example, 50% of our learners for our course who are continuing learners. They have jobs, they have incomes and so on. So they can afford to buy a textbook. Unlike much poorer students in colleges that may go for a used book or some make do with a shared copy or a library copy or something like that.

Jason: Yeah. Sometimes the people who are stealing the book are not candidates to buy the book in any circumstance. Whereas, you’re saying the people who are professionals, gosh, they’re going to buy the book and they may, whether they’re going to use it or not, they’re going to buy it because they have the luxury of doing so.

Anant: Exactly. Exactly.

Jason: So it’s a huge market of lifelong learning.

Anant: Absolutely. In fact we’re talking to every major textbook vendor. We’re doing licensing deals with them where they make these free books available on our site to offer to our students. In return their sales are going up.

Jason: So let me ask you about the competition as it were. Not that you guys are really in competition with such an emerging market. You have Udacity and I guess Coursera in the space. Some people like just providing software learning like Treehouse and Lynda which is very, very trade specific. How do you look at those two different groups of people. The people who are giving away… Here’s some software skills, which doesn’t seem super competitive. Then you have the Courseras and Udacities of the world. Is this like a new class, a cohort of people who are going to revolutionize education?

Anant: I think so. I think this is a new cohort. I think MOOCs are revolutionizing the world. I think having multiple players, multiple startups in the market place is a very good thing. Just as an example, you know, if you are in a city and there is a small chinese restaurant on a cross street, where another chinese restaurant opens across the street. It is actually a good thing.

Jason: Sure.

Anant: Because now whenever somebody wants to eat chinese food they will come to that region.

Jason: Right.

Anant: Rather than going to some other region. So I think it’s a very good thing.

Jason: Right. Are guys going to end up competing for these rock star teachers, I suppose, at some point? Or for the students is there going to be an EdX machine learning course, a Coursera and a Udacity all machine learning courses, all rated, all with different rock star teachers going back and forth? It becomes like the NBA with players or something.

Anant: I think there will be a day when that will happen.

Jason: Yeah.

Anant: But right now this is so early that we’re just scratching the surface. If you look at the total number of courses being offered, we have 20 on EdX and I believe twice as many courses running on the other platforms.

Jason: Right.

Anant: All put together it’s less than 100 driving courses right now. But if you look at the total cadre of courses that could be offered it’s in the tens of thousands. So we’re just scratching the surface. But even there, even on our own platform universities are free to put up any course they want to put up. So there will be competition even within the platform. Let alone across platforms for courses and the best teachers and so on. Hopefully this will improve quality across the board.

Jason: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about the organization here and the structure. How you’re working also with the Boston X Project. How many people are here and what are they working on?

Anant: Absolutely. EdX we are up to on the order of 50 full time people. We have people working in a number of areas. We have a large number of software engineers who are working on the EdX platform. It’s a very sophisticated platform. I told you about the virtual laboratories, being able to grade different kinds of content, building a scaleable platform, analytics. A lot of interesting things going on. A big part of our team is in software.

Jason: Building that software platform so that teachers can onboard the courses and manage this large number of students?

Anant: That’s one part. That’s authoring of the course. Also while the course is going on there’s a platform where this course is going on on EdX.org. So if you go to EdX.org and take a course you are on the platform.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So there where you have hundreds of thousands of students taking courses you need a platform that scales.

Jason: Right. That’s the software as a service component of this.

Anant: That’s the software as a service component exactly. The second component is the services component. Where we have a team that is doing video. You know, video editing. They’re doing things like working with people doing transcription so on a so forth. Looking at program management while looking at professors and training. So the services component that’s a pretty large component. Then we have the much smaller teams in marketing and university partnerships. The legal component, fiscal, HR, IT. So all the others.

Jason: How do you manage a large number of students taking a course? There’s obviously 2 or 3 different components there. There’s great community you talked about. Is there going to be 10K people on one message forum? Or do they get sort of grouped 1,000 at at time or 500 at a time? Have you figured out that science of gosh we had 100K people sign up for a course… Or let’s say it averages out to 10K even. How do you manage 10K people on one message board forum?

Anant: There are a number of ways of doing that. First of all we do have a global forum in every course.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So all the students are on that discussion forum.

Jason: Do they get out of control? Just that many people.

Anant: I think people have gotten quite used to working in large social groups and they tend to be very heavily self-moderated. We also hire community TAs. So they recruit community TAs from people who have taken the course previously who monitor and manage the forums.

Jason: Ahhh. So if you took the course previously with a high score we can pay you to be a TA?

Anant: We’re not even paying them. They come on board. It’s a great service that they’re doing. They like to do it. It’s community TA at EdX. It’s a great thing to have…

Jason: Oh, yeah. It’s a great thing to have on your resumé.

Anant: A great thing to have on your resumé. So people are doing that. Furthermore the forum has mechanisms for management. So for example if you have the same question someone else has asked before you can like or up vote that question. By doing so you increase the up voting of a question or an answer if you like it. So the same people don’t keep asking the same thing over and over again.

Jason: Ah.

Anant: So things tend to be filtered in that manner.

Jason: It doesn’t happen in a real world classroom. People every semester ask the same 3 questions.

Anant: Exactly. Not only that if there’s some question there’s a stream of people coming to your office or sending you emails asking you the question and you have to respond to every one of them. So there are ways in which these get moderated. In addition we built a feature in the platform called the cohorts, where the professor can divide the students into small groups.

Jason: Ah.

Anant: So that’s been launched for our spring courses. So the professor can choose I want to have… for this topic… I want to create group discussion forums of 20 students apiece. So you may have 10K students in the course but you can create 100 cohorts. Each of them could have 100 students for that matter. So this way you can divide up into these cohorts smaller group discussions can happen.

Jason: Ah. The teacher can say, “Here is this week’s discussion topic. Go.”

Anant: Yes. Exactly. The teacher can choose by topic. “For this topic I want to have a big group discussion. For this discussion I want to have a smaller discussion.”

Jason: Interesting.

Anant: You can use community TAs and so on to moderate the smaller discussion forums.

Jason: Interesting. Now what about grading and looking at people’s progress? In some courses, you know 2+2=4. There is a limited number of numbers you can type in. Pretty easy to do. But in a literature course or a history course where you’re writing text, how do you manage that process where I’m writing a paper? Or does that concept change?

Anant: There are a number of ways of grading free form content. So EdX uses things like machine learning grading and also peer grading. Where you have machines do the grading of free form content. You can train the machine grader. Then computers can grade free form content. You can also use peer grading. Where people can grade each other for example.

Jason: Right.

Anant: You use some kind of selection process to pick the graders. So that is definitely possible to do as well.

Jason: Yeah. That seems to be a big problem if you were doing term papers. That might be… Would the term paper become part of the sort of paying for paper kind of concept? Like maybe I’ll pay to have my term paper graded. You know, that could be part of the paid services?

Anant: It could be part of the number of a paid service. It seems to me grading an exam or grading a homework is pretty basic. You want to do that as part of your basic service.

Jason: What if it’s a 20 page term paper? I mean, the teacher, it might take them a half an hour to do each one right?

Anant: Exactly. Maybe we could use peered reading to do that. We could do machine learning to do that. So both of these are possible. It’s hard to imagine… If you have 100K students it’s hard imagine how to do that at scale.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So our goal is to increase access to education also to improve quality of education. So we are developing technologies to be able to automate all of that. Either by people helping each other or by machines.

Jason: I love the idea of that being like… you could pay $10 and the professor will review that one. You know, there’s some sort of fee to have that reviewed and get actual feedback. That would be pretty amazing.

Anant: I think we can do that but that flies in the face of…

Jason: The openness?

Anant: The openness and free access to education and so on. You know it’s a slippery slope. If you start charging for grading pretty soon you’ll start charging for a course. The graded exercise comprise… You know, it’s not unusual for the graded exercises to comprise half the time you spend in that course. Video is being the other half. So if you’re charging for half of the course it’s a slippery slope to charge for the full course.

Jason: And Boston X. Tell me about that.

Anant: So there this was an idea of the mayor of Boston, Tom Menino. He came up with the concept of Boston X working with EdX and MIT and Harvard. Where the idea is to have small community centers where community members can get together. Where the city will outfit those centers with wireless interconnectivity and computers and so on. So whether it’s a library or community centers. Then community members can go in there and take EdX courses. Also we’ll work with local universities. Like for Boston X we worked with MIT and Harvard for example. And have volunteer students serve as TAs in person. So that they can facilitate discussions and answer questions and help the students in more of a moderated help style of grouping. Outcomes are likely to improve by doing that as well. So that can be a big benefit.

Jason: Do you think the style of courses is going to change now to be more skills based? Do you think this sort of new online will lead you towards a deeper connection with employers? Are employers saying to you… an IBM or a Microsoft or Google… “Hey. Can we look at the 100K people who took the machine learning course and could we get early access to the emails of the top 1%? Cause we have a need there.

Anant: Employers are asking.

Jason: It seems like you could get an incredible bounty on those students.

Anant: So employers are asking and we are talking to employers about that. Where if students opt in… If students say, “Look. I want to opt in to the service where you connect me to a potential employer and carrier placement services.” Then EdX can do that. So we are working with employers and students in providing such a facility.

Jason: Would you guys get a placement fee if you gave the most leads perhaps? Would they underwrite a course perhaps? Like this could be machine learning brought to you by Google. Would there be anything wrong with that in your eyes?

Anant: So in this case they can provide referral fees. It’s like a headhunter. You pay some fraction of the annual income of a person hired by a headhunter to the headhunter. I think obtaining a fee in that manner for sustainability is perfectly fair game.

Jason: I love that.

Anant: There are a number of ways in which you can do that.

Jason: I love the idea of bidding out the courses to the top tech firms. So this is Google’s machine… This is a machine learning course provided free by Google. We’d love to meet the top 500 students. So if you get into the top 500 you get to meet a Google recruiter. I mean, then it’s like you’re providing two levels of value. The job potentiality and taking the course.

Anant: You want to be really careful there. There is a slippery slope…

Jason: It does feel like a slippery slope doesn’t it?

Anant: …between and employer sponsoring a course vs. having paid advertisements as part of the course. It loads to having ads show up as you’re taking an online course. So you have to be very careful that you don’t start going that slippery slope of advertisements. But…

Jason: We’re talking like PBS style. You know just very discreet little button in the corner, brought to you by… Provided free by Google.

Anant: If it’s very nondescript and it’s, you know, very innocuous and not in your face…

Jason: Tasteful.

Anant: … and tasteful. I could see that. Particularly if it adds value to students. For example I can imagine… Again I’m not suggesting that we do this but one can imagine that if a student is willing to watch the whole course with a very innocuous symbol on the side that said ‘brought to you by…

Jason: Yeah. Free by Google.

Anant: … a company as funded to Google or…

Jason: IBM, Intel whatever yeah.

Anant: … has funded this course and we’re bringing it to you so that you can enjoy this course for free. Then it’s a service to the students. So if you’re from a poor country and you can’t afford the certificates maybe this way you get the certificates for free. So I think when we begin making trade offs like that I think that would be going down starting down the slippery slope path. I think those conversations would need to happen.

Jason: You’ve been at MIT for a long time, huh? When did you start?

Anant: I’ve been at MIT for over 25 years.

Jason: Over 25 years. So you’ve seen a lot in your day. Tragically Aaron Swartz, who was a student committed suicide under pressure. How do you think the university responded to all of that? I know it’s slightly off topic but I’m just curious somebody who’s been there for 25 years and seen a lot of hacking go on. What are your thoughts?

Anant: It’s extremely tragic and makes me feel very, very sad this happens. Particularly MIT’s all about openness and open source and openness. EdX is free offering free courses. …might be at Harvard and EdX is an open source platform. But you know the whole value system off our institution is completely aligned with the free access.

Jason: Right.

Anant: So this was a very unfortunate situation. There’s is certainly a lot of… There’s a committee that’s been formed internally to look into and to understand the whole… what happened here… the whole situation. The whole thing is very sad and very unfortunate.

Jason: Yeah. Very well said Anant. I think it’s a delicate situation obviously. Like you say a university fighting so much for openness it’s just paradoxical what happened and very sad too. 20 courses today at EdX.org people can start taking them.

Anant: That’s right.

Jason: The most popular 2 or 3 are?

Anant: I think in terms of enrollment I think the highest enrollment was still for the circuits and electronics course. I think because it was our first course we had 155K people take it. Differential equations as a prerequisite. The second one was a computer science course from Harvard. Introduction Programming and Computer Science, the so called CS50X. That had about close to 150K students take the course.

Jason: Wow.

Anant: So some of the basic introductory courses tend to have a lot enrollments.

Jason: Anant continued success. Everybody who listens to the program, I can’t encourage you enough to go to EdX.org and get yourself a couple certificates. It’s going to be the huge difference in your career. To have these certificates and to really participate in these, I know as an employer myself and an investor in a lot companies, to me this is a God send. Just being able to go and offer these courses to so many more people. I hope that everybody in the audience goes and embraces this and checks it out. It’s a phenomenal project. I’m actually… To be quite frank I am astounded that these large institutions have embraced it to this level. I mean you must, on a certain level too, that this much progress has been made in such a short period of time.

Anant: Oh. Absolutely. I think this is internet time. So if someone has been at EdX for a month it’s like you’ve been there for a year. Things you are learning at an absolutely amazing pace.

Jason: Why is it that the universities feel such a sense of urgency on this? Is it that you’ve done a fantastic job of convincing them or just they see that they need to do it to compete? What’s the massive imperative?

Anant: I think this is the only way to make things happen. It’s to just go and do it. It’s to take a startup view of the world where you proceed at a breathtaking pace and you just run as fast as you can. You do things as fast as you can. That’s how startups work. So this is just another startup in that sense.

Jason: Yeah. Amazing continued success. Everybody checkout EdX.org. Anant thank you so much for being on the program.

Anant: Oh, thank you. My pleasure.

Jason: See you next time.

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Special thanks to the members of the TWiST Backchannel Program!

Executive Producers


Associate Producers

  • Brad Pineau
  • Kat Ganesan
  • Nicholas Christian
  • Mau Frontier
  • Kyle Braatz
  • Serena Ehrlich
  • JD
  • Alex Lotoczko
  • James Kennedy
  • Benoit Curdy
  • Asher Nevins
  • Mike Kaltschnee
  • William Doom
  • David Lee
  • Jake Kerber
  • Sarp Coskun
  • Giuseppe Taibi
  • Tyrone Rubin
  • Keno Vigil
  • Paul Peters
  • Jamal Waring
  • Nick Ostroff
  • Alex Binkley
  • John MP Knox
  • Bryan McCormick
  • Marcos Trinidad
  • Allen Cordrey
  • Daniel Mich
  • Joshua Rosen
  • Grant Carlile
  • James Smith
  • Christopher Rill
  • Elliot Myhre
  • Nihon Giga
  • Nathan Gielis
  • Greg Meadows
  • Rick Cartwright
  • Jacques Struwig
  • Robert Ward
  • Adam Gering
  • Shelley Gaskin
  • Jim Shute


  • Ryan Hoover
  • Michael Cranston
  • Josiah Thomas
  • João Fernandes
  • Petrus Theron
  • Michael Wild
  • Dale Emmons
  • Tim de Jardine
  • Alejandro Vasquez
  • Milan Babuskov
  • Chris Rowe
  • Nelson Melo
  • James Dawson
  • Toddy Mladenov
  • Daniel Torres
  • Chris Macke
  • Piotr Zuralski
  • Armand Konan
  • Brian Vogel
  • Paul D
  • Jennifer Sun
  • David Kolb
  • Sue Marrone
  • Eugene Granovksy
  • Will Blackton
  • Ryan Dodds
  • Brett Arp
  • Jason Cresswell
  • Edwin Orange
  • Daniel Bradley
  • Shawn Daniel
  • Priidu Kull
  • Patrick Desroches
  • Alex Lam
  • Paul Secor
  • Ryan Urabe
  • Madhu R.
  • Paul Ardeleanu
  • Ian Thomas
  • Manny Alarcon
  • Charlie Osmond
  • Christopher Smitley
  • Roshan H.
  • Barcy Cordrey
  • Matt Beaubien
  • Matthew Smith
  • Oscar Bueno
  • Tim Hoyt
  • Ian Gerstel
  • Taphon Maddison
  • John Bradley
  • Luigi Armogida
  • Dave Ferrara
  • Janus Lindau
  • Chris Mancil
  • TR Ludwig
  • Giles Thomas
  • Jason Cartwright
  • Michael Del Borrello
  • Joshua Rosen
  • David Karlberg
  • Marcus Schappi
  • Justin Furniss
  • Mike Hauck
  • Jess Bachman
  • Isaac Hill
  • Robert Haydock
  • Dan Sfera
  • Flaviu Simihaian
  • Kiko Cherman
  • Chandra Siva
  • Kasper Andkjaer
  • Zach Woodward
  • Chris Galasso
  • Chad Olsen
  • Michael Grabham
  • John Shiple
  • Gregory Hoffman
  • Chris Rickard
  • Eskil Steenberg
  • Jay Moran
  • Karim Sarkis
  • Michael Davidovich
  • Petru Marchidan
  • Sam Drzymala


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