edX president predicts an online learning transformation

Anant Agarwal believes that internet technology will democratise learning

Anant Agarwal is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of edX, a leading provider of massive open online courses, known as Moocs.

Created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, edX is a non-profit, “open-source” organisation.

What are edX’s aims?

Everybody should have access to a high-quality education. At edX we are applying technology to improve education in quality, scale and accessibility. We have about 1m people enrolled in edX. We partner with some of the world’s best universities to offer courses to learners all over the world.

What is different about the education you can offer?

With internet technology, you can provide an increase of scale, of how many people can access it.

We can also provide instant feedback, including essay questions. We can also do self-pacing. With online technology, students can now hit the pause button, rewind the lecture, even mute the professor and read the transcripts.

Finally, the discussion forum is very useful. Learners can interact with each other and learn from each other completely online.

How would you grade an essay?

We use AI [artificial intelligence] assessment, peer assessment and self-assessment. With AI-assessment the first 100 essays are graded by the instructor and the way they are graded is then fed into a computer to create a statistical model. The computer uses that model and machine-learning technology to grade every other essay. So the first 100 might take the instructor a day to grade, but then essays are graded in seconds. In peer-assessment, learners grade each other’s work.

Will these approaches present a big challenge to traditional education?

I think online learning is going to be transformative. Traditional education is never going to be the same again; it has already changed. At MIT, for example, 1,500 students are accessing online content in various degrees of blended forms of learning, where you combine online with in-person. Those traditional institutions that embrace these new technologies can improve education drastically.

What will the university campus of the late 21st century look like?

I think 20 years from now, 50 years from now, the campus is not going to look like it does today. I think they’ll need a lot of flexible spaces, maybe group spaces, lots of little coffee areas, with tables and connections for laptops, so that people can share information.

Will Moocs change the social function of further education in sorting young people and fitting them into the economy?

Moocs democratise learning. The internet provides access for everybody; with a low-cost connection, everybody can have equal access to material ... which is why I like to think of edX as the ultimate “democratiser”.

How long before there is a purely online degree at one of your partner universities?

I’ll give it less than one year, before some of our partner institutions will be doing ... purely online degrees. Many of them have expressed interest in doing that.

Will students find it difficult to give as much attention to a computer screen as they would to a teacher in the classroom?

I think it’s the opposite problem for a teacher today; where do you think a lot of the students are gazing? When I was an undergrad, we gazed out of a physical window; today, they gaze into an electronic window and they’re enthralled. Their attention is held by the electronic window, not the dusty blackboard.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.