#115 – Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX
What’s in this episode?
This week I am in conversation with edX CEO Anant Agarwal. I interviewed Anant the day after he shared a stage with US Ed Secretary, Betsy De Vos, where he encouraged her to consider a range of policy options in front of a live audience at SXSWEDU in Austin. In this recording we talk about that experience, plus how MOOCS and online learning are developing, why writing is as important as coding, why choosing your favourite learner is as bad as having a favourite child, and we even invite Class Central Founder Dhawal Shah to bring his expertise to bear after his fantastic talk on The Evolution of MOOCs also at SXSW Edu.
“If I were to re-do my life, I would spend more time on writing.” I really enjoy writing, I used to write poems and so on”
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- Sophie Bailey is the Founder and Presenter of The Edtech Podcast | Twitter: @podcastedtech
- Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX | edX | Twitter | LinkedIn
- Dhawal Shah, Founder of ClassCentral | Class Central | Twitter | LinkedIn
Quotes from this episode
“We need to reimagine education from the ground up”
“Today our education system needs to become modular, more agile and lifelong.”
[On DeVos]: ‘She was challenging us and shooting questions at us. I thought the questions were right on”
“We have a short programme called a micro masters. They cost about $1000. But today students cannot use financial aid dollars for these innovative new programmes.”
“If I were to re-do my life, I would spend more time on writing.” I really enjoy writing, I used to write poems and so on”
“Learning online is actually very difficult, even for the most motivated people.”
“Start with the ‘Learning How to Learn’ course and then you can go on to these other courses so your chances of failing are reduced.”
“Coding has given me my job.”
Thank you to this week’s sponsors:
edvinca is an investment company exclusively dedicated to Education.
edvinca is the fruit of a joint venture between Hambro Perks, the growth investment firm behind Pi-Top and Kortext, and DLF Venture, a family-owned holding company affiliated to Verlinvest who have invested in some of the most successful edtech companies in Asia like ByJu’s.
At edvinca, our aim is to help EdTech startups make large-scale impact. We are active investors who like to think global. We invest in early stage companies that we grow alongside their founders. We offer follow-on funding and deploy permanent capital to address our long-term vision.
If you’ve ever gone on the hunt for a great online course from a top university, then you may already know about Class Central. Class Central is the most comprehensive search engine for MOOCs and online courses. The site lists over 10,000 courses and allows you to search by subject, university, keyword, and language of instruction. With tens of thousands of user reviews, you can use Class Central to help you decide if a course is right for you.
And, if you’re into geeking out about online learning, you will love diving into Class Central’s MOOC Report. The MOOC Report covers everything that’s going on in the MOOC space, with news, analysis, and opinions about the fascinating world of online courses. A great place to start is with Class Central’s in-depth analysis of the state of MOOCs in 2017.
Edvinca is an investment company exclusively dedicated to Education. Edvinca is the fruit of a joint venture between Hambro Perks, the growth investment firm behind Pi-Top and Kortext, and DLF Venture, a family-owned holding company affiliated to Verlinvest who have invested in some of the most successful edtech companies in Asia like BYJU’s.
At edvinca, our aim is to help Edtech startups make large-scale impact. We are active investors who like to think global. We invest in early stage companies that we grow alongside their founders. We offer follow-on funding and deploy permanent capital to address our long-term vision. Please, visit our website on www.edvinca.com, to find out more about our mission and get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to discuss your Edtech business with us.
Here’s a word from Class Central, the most popular search and review site for online courses. If you’ve ever gone on a hunt for a great online course from a top university, then you may already know about Class Central. Class Central is the most comprehensive search engine for MOOCS and online courses. The site lists over 10,000 courses and allows you to search by subjects, university keyword and language of instruction. With tens of thousands of user reviews, you can use Class Central to help you decide if the course is right for you. And, if you’re into geeking out about online learning like I am, you’ll love diving into Class Central’s MOOC report.
The MOOC report covers everything that’s going on in the MOOC space, with news, analysis, and opinions about the fascinating world of online courses. A great place to start is with Class Central’s in depth analysis of the state of MOOCs in 2017. You can find the link in our show notes. Or if you’re interested in finding out which courses are ranked the highest, check out Class Central’s course ranking for the month and the year, or have a look at the top 50 MOOCs of all time.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Hello, everyone? How is it going? Welcome back or if you’re new, hello and welcome to the Edtech Podcast.
What’s going on this week? Well, the Edtech Podcast celebrated its second birthday, and London listeners came along to our meet up on hiring and retaining talent including advisory networks. Thanks to Jamie Brooker, Kristen Weatherby, and Will Bentinck, for speaking and sharing their learning’s. It was a great night at Runway East.
I’ve also been busy squirreling away on the Edtech Podcast Festival and all the pieces are slowly coming together. I’m delighted that Anton Francic, Principal Secondary Adviser at Hackney Learning Trust, will be joining the event. I’m also working on bringing some of the international community along plus putting on clinics on how to work with researchers and journalist on evidence-based news stories. But, what about this week’s podcast, I hear you cry?
Well, this week, I am in conversation with edX CEO Anant Agwal. I interviewed Anant the day after he shared a stage with US Ed Secretary, Betsy De Vos, where he encouraged her to consider a range of policy options in front of a live audience at South by Southwest EDU(SXSWEDU) in Austin. In this recording we talked about that experience, plus how MOOCs and online learning are developing and we even invite Class Central Founder Dhawal Shah to bring his expertise to bear after his fantastic talk on MOOCs also at South by.
Thanks to edvinca and Class Central for supporting this week’s episode. Now I’m off to go and watch my big brother get married. Have a great week!
Sophie: So I’m absolutely delighted to be here with Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX. So welcome!
Anant: Thank you, delighted to join you.
Sophie: So, I was really thrilled yesterday to watch the presentation from the Secretary for Education, and then the panel that followed and it seemed that what you were saying had a fairly positive response from people in the audience. So can you tell us a little bit just to kick off, because I think it was very memorable for me coming from the UK and watching quite a bizarre set-up of the Secretary of Education interviewing three Edtech companies essentially. How that went? What was the experience like for you?
Anant: It was, in education we talk about flipped classrooms. And to me this was a flipped panel in the sense that usually you would have reporters and people like ourselves shooting questions at the
Secretary of Education, and here the roles are reversed and she was challenging us and shooting questions at us, so it was a very interesting style of meeting.
I certainly enjoyed it. I thought that the questions were right on, particularly about what other kinds of transformations we need to be creating? What are the kinds of innovation we need to be creating in education? And she challenged us to come up with what might be the big innovative approaches and I talked about how we need to reimagine education from the ground up. All education system was built hundreds of years ago. And simply doesn’t match today’s needs.
So today, our education system needs to become modular rather than have people go to college for four years, but then start out and then go to work and not learn thereafter. It’s not a model that works anymore. In a society that things are changing so fast where things like data science where all the jobs are. That phrase wasn’t coined 10 year ago, and so our education system needs to become modular and more agile and lifelong in that people need to do modular pieces of education and then be updating what they’ve learned throughout life in order to keep pace with the advancements in work.
SOPHIE BAILEY: I remember you perhaps suggesting that instead of Federal aid for a $20,000 degrees that perhaps didn’t always lead into jobs, why not actually give some aid for some of the shorter form courses that perhaps edX and others are more famous for as well.
ANANT AGARWAL: Exactly, now as we – I really believe to move to a modular system where people can get pieces of education and so on edX for example, we have a short program called the MicroMasters, it’s worth 25% of a Master’s Degree and people can collect a number of these as their careers change, and it costs about a $1000.
A full Master’s Degree may cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 for MBA’s and instead, here, imagine getting something for a $1000. But today, students cannot use financial aid dollars from the government for these innovative new programs, and so that then to perpetuate a broken and inefficient system and doesn’t allow innovation to come in. And some of the audience seemed to really empathize with that view that we need to be innovating even in policy levels.
SOPHIE BAILEY: In fact I’m speaking to one of the policy leads this afternoon from the office of Edtech. So suppose, if you were, apart from the Federal issue, if you were to have a wish list of policy levers that you could use to change the education landscape, what would you have on your wish list?
ANANT AGARWAL: I think one of the biggest things that we have that is fairly anti-diluents is our whole accreditation system where the reaccrediting bodies that accredit universities and it’s very challenging to have new entrants come into the field that are doing innovative things. And frankly, when I’ve talked to some of those accrediting bodies, they do are looking for innovative programs.
So, I think one of the big changes I would like to see happen is change the way we do accreditation and perhaps create a new accrediting body that will focus on validating or accrediting newer innovative programs, you know, innovative bootcamps that fill a need. We’ve heard of shorter programs, a number of innovative programs that I think can benefit from innovation.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yeah, and previously a gentleman from the skills fund, I don’t know if that’s something that they were trying to solve but yeah, accreditation is a big one. In fact the gentleman that I just interviewed here before we came into the room was a 21 year old AI entrepreneur from Sweden I believe, and then I asked him what question he would ask of you but also he’s experience was quite relevant to what you said on the panel yesterday because he started doing the [androiding 00:10:03] course on AI while he was at school, and so, you know, he did his first year of University and actually I am continuing to start my business.
And so it’s quite addictive of this idea that you don’t have to kind of wait. You can learn as you go but what he was interested in was because he was doing the course fairly early on. There were gaps in his knowledge say for example around Math’s, so could the next situation of online learning then kind of anticipate, okay, your younger learner, so you need that kind of additional resource or a Math’s before you move on and kind of adapt in that way. I just wanted if that’s something that’s already been developed or –
ANANT AGARWAL: I think that’s a very important point in that learning is not something we just go and take a course. You have to learn some Math’s background or you may have to go and get some background in writing or a number of other disciplines and so there tend to be pathways.
And one of the things that we’ve tried to do at edX to address that issue is we begun to build out quite a few high school level courses as well, particularly in Math’s and Language and Science, and also many Humanities disciplines so that as people try to do some of the harder course, they find out, you know what? I need a prerequisite in Math’s, and then we offer those links on the same course and say, hey, look if you need prerequisite in Math’s, you can go and take these programs.
So for instance I teach a circuit’s course on edX and that course needs prerequisites in Calculus and complex Algebra, so we have links in there either embedding some of that material directly into the course or links to other courses particularly at the high school level where they can get that knowledge. So it’s really important to create pathways like this that enables students to develop the appropriate background in order to learn more advance material.
SOPHIE BAILEY: I put out a tweet on our feed to ask if anyone had any questions for you and there’s a lady from the University of Southampton, she asks if you did all this again, say you knew what you knew now when you were starting out, what would you do differently?
ANANT AGARWAL: I think one of the things that we would certainly look to do very differently is think a lot more about what pathways might look like. So when we started out we would pretty much put up any courses, so like a thousand flowers bloom idea. Hey, you want to do a course? Go to a course. And what ended up happening was you would get some duplication, you would not have the prerequisites, so I think we learned this as we went along and today we are much more proactive in working with our university and institutional partners in terms of creating appropriate courses at the right levels and with proper pathways, so that there is a pattern to the set of offerings.
While in the past, when we started out, it was pretty much adhoc. And so if we were to do something differently, maybe one of the things would have been to kind of plan out what the whole catalogue might look like. And then be a very proactive in working with partners to fill out specific items in that catalogue as opposed to having universities and institutions simply create whatever was interesting to them, because often times, some of those thing may not have been interesting to students or something that might be interesting to students but they might not have had the background to do it and so being thoughtful about creating prerequisites courses before creating more advanced courses might have been a better approach.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Interesting! And then some of the conversations I’ve had here being around the cost of production and perhaps are being a bit of an arms raise among the universities to increase the quality of production. How much does kind of edX course to produce on average?
ANANT AGARWAL: The average course, if you’re talking about a four to eight week course, may cost on the order of $20,000 to $50,000 to produce depending on what features you’re using and so on. But, however, actually I’d like to challenge the question, which is there’d been studies that show in fact, a study on edX that looked at a large number of videos and student engagement of those videos and there
is a paper written on it by a researcher who is now a professor at UC San Diego, and his paper presented that the quality of the video, and the amount of money spent on the video was largely a second order or the effect in student engagement and outcomes.
What they showed was that the enthusiasm of the instructor was much more important and in fact in some cases, garage band style, home basement videos, but where hammered out very quickly, very engaging instructor may have had much bigger impacts than extremely expensive elaborately studio arranged the videos that might been over choreograph. So, I just question the question that we need to be spending huge amounts of money in production, I think we need to be much more thoughtful about it.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yep, another question, sir. I saw a recent report around, I suppose the average user of an online course and whether perhaps they are, on average, they’ve already done a degree, they’ve already benefited for some form of formal education and I guess like I’ve really liked your comment yesterday about education being a human right and why would you want to limit access to that?
So, I suppose the question is, how do we make sure that with online learning, we don’t exacerbate the gap that already exist in terms of who’s educated and perhaps who might left behind as well.
ANANT AGARWAL: I think it’s very important for us to make sure that we increase access to education for everybody. The gaps are so big today that anything that we do will be helpful. It turns out that on edX for example, the median age of the learner is about 26 to 27. For our MicroMasters Programs, the median ages of learners are even higher around 30 years, where people are up-skilling themselves as many of them have already jobs, for example.
At the same time, edX is working with foundations like the Lumina Foundation and so on. Where both of our goal is to reach out to communities of learners that may be much more underserved than the traditional community of learners on MOOCs and so we’re trying various experiments in terms of partnering with community colleges for example that to reach a particular demographic we are partnering with schools and we have a lot of high school content.
Often times, if we have more advanced content, it’s kind of give all at that time because if you haven’t learned the prerequisite material in high school, because you couldn’t afford it or didn’t go to a good school, if you haven’t learned advanced or basic computer science in high school, it’s very hard for you to start off in college. So we launched a high school program. We launched nearly a hundred courses
at the high school and school level in basic, basic Computer Science and Math’s so people could get those skills and then learn the more advanced material, but I’m sure we could do a lot more to reach a population of learners that need the education the most.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Okay, so thank you. I’ve got Dhawal Shah here as well from Class Central, so, welcome!
DHAWAL SHAH: Thank you for having me.
SOPHIE BAILEY: I was really excited to bring you along as well because I attended your Evolution of MOOCs Presentation here at South by Southwest EDU (SXSWEDU), and I just thought it would be a really interesting conversation between two experts in this field in terms of what’s happening. So, I suppose first of all, perhaps for the listeners, you could give us a little summary of especially the top 5 points if you can recall them that you summarized in your presentation as well.
DHAWAL SHAH: Sure. So the first trend was shrinking of free and generally over time across MOOC providers, there are certain free components that are no longer free. I think edX is still the most free, except the certificate, everything else is free. But other providers have started putting pay walls in front of content.
And the second trend was MOOCs no longer massive and part of this reason is because of switched to a self-paced schedule. Before MOOCs were session based and usually learners went through one or two sessions a year throughout the year. Now, everybody is starting their own cohort, they’re going to many cohorts at the same time and this dilutes the cognitive that goes through the same material at the same time, and that’s why engagement in MOOCs have dropped across the provider. Sometimes when the course launches, there’s high engagement, after awhile it dies down.
Third one is based on our own credentialing. MOOC providers have like launched credit initiatives. They have their own micro credentials that over 500 micro credential and online degrees. Some like edX have combined credit and micro credentials into one thing called MicroMasters.
Yeah, the fourth trend is MOOCs have found their audience and the audience is professional learners. People who are well beyond their educating year and are probably working in the industry and they try to – that either trying to get a better performance at their current job, learn new skills, or switch their careers.
And the fifth one is a product at every price and by that what I mean is, some like edX when they started they’re only free. Then they added a certificate, then they added credit, then they added credentials, and now they have online degrees, and they also have work enterprise –
SOPHIE BAILEY: Offerings.
DHAWAL SHAH: Offering so you now have zero dollars to almost depending on the enterprise deal it can go up to a million dollars. So they have, they are able to do with the same content and it is usually with the same content that’s offered at a different price points and I think it gives a way for the universities and the MOOC providers to monetize efficiently.
SOPHIE BAILEY: So that places an interesting question to both of you on I think it was the third one in terms of corporate learning. If I was looking to future proof my career for the next five years, what are the top three courses that you’d recommend so that could be either on edX or it could be on any platform?
ANANT AGARWAL: For being a professor myself and having taught for 30 years it is a very hard question because I think more learning is better, but of these three topics that everybody should know, that they do know today, I would say one should be computer science. I think everybody should know about computational thinking and so for example, MIT’s basic course on computer science and computational thinking might be a good example. It’s a very basic course, high schoolers can do it and are doing it and I think programming in my mind has become the fourth R – Reading, writing, arithmetic, and programming. So I think that is one.
Second thing is writing. It is very clear from data, from a lot of employers and others that they’re really looking for good communication writing skills. In fact, the most sought after skill on resumes is actually good writing and it’s not other things that we might think about and so for example Berkley has a fantastic course on writing for instance that’s hugely popular, so I would say writing.
The third one, I would say would be a combination of soft skills. Again, employers are looking for soft skills and the Rochester Institute of Technology has a great professional certificate program on soft skills involving – you can actually teach critical thinking, you can teach team work and so I would say these are the three that I would favor.
SOPHIE BAILEY: I think I’m going to sign up right away!
DHAWAL SHAH: I should have gone before Anant. The only thing I would add at the first course I would do is learning how to learn, and I think it’s just because it’s a base course that will allow – learning online is actually really difficult, even for the most motivated people so starting with the course, learning how to learn, and then you can go on to these other courses so that your chances of failure are reduced. It’s still high, but I guess.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Okay. Well, thank you for the recommendations and one of my questions was actually people are a bit obsessed with coding so I’d like the distinguishment between coding and computational thinking, something that’s really important but what’s the greatest thing that coding has done for you or programming? So you see you’ve had an amazing experience following learning that as well?
ANANT AGARWAL: So I really want to make a distinction like you did between coding and computational thinking. I think computational thinking the really important part. It’s like saying when you do mathematics it’s an understanding humorously and understanding the beauty of math versus what coding is like how you use a calculator. But understanding math is computational thinking.
What that has done for me is throughout my life is it has enabled me to think about how I can use computation as a way to have much bigger impact in whatever I do. So previously, if I could let’s say for example, just a simple silly example, if I wanted to add six numbers, I could pull out my calculator and add six numbers manually would take me six seconds, but what I begun to think now is when I do something how do I scale it to millions?
So now, I might go and write a little program to add the million numbers that could happen in the blink of an eye. If I want to do seven numbers it works, if I’d want to do a million numbers it works. And so I think it’s enabled me to think about how I can leverage the power of technology, the cloud computing video distribution at scale to do things at quality in the small or to expand to massive scale. So computational thinking has really opened my eyes to the power of how technology can have massive widespread change and impact both in scale and quality.
SOPHIE BAILEY: And what’s the most powerful teaching experience that you’ve had whether that’s within your universities or online as well? Are there any kind of interactions with students or follow up stories from students that you’ve had where you thought wow, I’m really amazed, and that’s kind of been the experience of that person afterwards?
ANANT AGARWAL: You know it’s very interesting, there are just so many stories. I’ll just give you one quick little example. This is like choosing between your children and there’s a –
SOPHIE BAILEY: I know, you’re not meant to have favorites.
ANANT AGARWAL: There’s so many stories but let me pick one. But out of my team the last year we did a pilot where 40 students took a completely online circuit’s course even while they were on campus, 100% on line not blended but a fully online course. And we expected all the students to be on campus and towards the end, we asked them all to show up so we could just talk to them and one student didn’t show up. His name was Ali Abdullah, and by enquiring, you know, where was he? It turned out that he was actually doing an internship at a company in California and he’d taken a semester off. And so he’d been able to use the online course as a way to catch up and do an online course even while he did his internship and got academic credit at MIT for doing so. And in fact, he also wrote to me saying that he was able to use what he’s learning in the course at his internship which was that, Tesla.
SOPHIE BAILEY: All right, nice!
DHAWAL SHAH: So, I mean coding has given me my job. I started Class Central as a side project, built it over the weekend and going back to the three things like the three core types of courses I would recommended, I had number one, add the skills for number one but over time I worked on number two and number three. And I think they might be even more important depending how you use it especially in the business world I think number two and number three can add a lot of value if you have a decent level of knowledge of number one like the coding course. Number two is writing and number three soft skills.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yeah. Yes, it’s pretty interesting to hear about the writing, yeah. It’s often overlooked I think certainly in contemporary discourse.
ANANT AGARWAL: If I might add, if there’s one thing, if I’m going to redo my life? If there’s one thing I should have done and spend more time on growing up as a kid, is writing. Growing up in India, we spend a lot of time on technical skills and Math and Science and so on, and writing wasn’t important at all, it’s something you did. And the sooner you got it done the better. But there’s one thing I wished I’ve done better and I could do better. I still struggle with writing it’s like pulling teeth for me, right now.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Do you have a creative writing? Do you enjoy writing?
ANANT AGARWAL: I really enjoy writing. I used to write poems and so on.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yeah.
ANANT AGARWAL: But I find writing very hard even today. Luckily for me, I talked a lot in college so I did a lot of debates and speeches and so on I think I’m okay in the talking department, but my writing is very slow and I struggle and I’m not confident and I wish I had learned much better writing, learned to write much better, so I could be much more facile than I am today.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Very interesting. Last question, we always asked the guest of the Edtech podcast in terms of inspiration, so people that have had a big impact in the way you think, the work that you do or just generally in your life. So are there people that have inspired you or write books that you’ll say gave back to you that you’d like to share with our listeners? Who’d like to go first?
DHAWAL SHAH: I can go, I mean I would go back to learning how to learn. Barbara Oakley, she has a book and she writes a lot and so I look at her writing and I saw how she has built a career around writing. She’s also a professor and how she build her career around writing and gets published in big publications and I try to mimic some of it and obviously I use what I learned in the course on a day to day basis.
SOPHIE BAILEY: And you have your colleagues a book about, No Cost MBA or I can’t remember the title.
DHAWAL SHAH: Yeah, Get your MBA for Cheap or something.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yeah.
DHAWAL SHAH: I can’t remember the exact title, but I haven’t read it yet, but I did contribute to some aspects of it in terms of courses and yeah.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Okay, cool.
ANANT AGARWAL: I would say for me particularly with the online with edX and the career that I have today, I think my biggest inspiration was SalKhan I think you can trace back the entire movement to SalKhan. The trajectory was MIT was doing open course where the early part of the century and they were giving away courses for free. And then SalKhan, really took it to the next level and brought video, and teaching, and engagement and to me, he was just a huge inspiration and his course and his style at the tablet captured style inspired me and that’s what inspired the formation of edX, and in fact in the
first course on edX which my colleagues and I taught was course on circuits and I used exactly his style and in fact I did not realize this but at one point he told me that in one of my big class he was actually my student at MIT.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Really?
ANANT AGARWAL: Twenty years ago. And he was in one of the big classes and I didn’t even know that he was my student and he told me after that, I had been your student so to me that was just amazing. And I was hugely inspired by him. I did ask him once I said, I do tablet captured videos just like you do, what advice do you have for me? And the advise he told me was that, before you start hammering out your video on a tablet, just sit back and smile and really get chilled and relax and then just let go and it’s okay if you make mistakes and so on and just be natural; and I followed that advise to the letter and students have also liked the naturalness of the videos so easily SalKhan is my biggest inspiration.
SOPHIE BAILEY: It’s fantastic how your lives have intertwined and go back and forth like that. On the chilling out aspect, I was told to when I was recording the intro to the podcast sometimes I just get lalalala… you have to just—
ANANT AGARWAL: Otherwise you feel clicky and you feel kind of stifled, yes.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Yeah, you have to kind of get into a lot that. Okay, well fantastic! Thank you both so much for your time today. If people want to kind of follow up and find out what you’re up to, I think you’re @classcentral on twitter.
SOPHIE BAILEY: And @agarwal, what was the twitter handle?
ANANT AGARWAL: My twitter handle is @agarwaledu. A G A R W A L E D U.
SOPHIE BAILEY: Okay, fantastic. Well, thank you guys so much.
ANANT AGARWAL: Thank you very much.
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