Q&A with Anant Agarwal, speaker at ignitED conference and CEO of edX

Feb. 22, 2016, 12:58 a.m.

Stanford Pre-Education Society held its annual ignitED conference on undergraduate education on Feb. 6. Anant Agarwal M.S. ’84 and Ph.D. ’87, CEO of edX, an online education platform, spoke at the event through Skype. edX, founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider that offers online courses from universities around the world. Following the conference, The Daily spoke with Agarwal to discuss the future of EdTech and the innovations needed in the education sector.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you first become interested in EdTech?

Anant Agarwal (AA): I was interested in education around the 2000s, and to me the biggest challenge was teaching online labs. I used to teach a circuit course at MIT, and I said to myself if I can somehow do circuits laboratories online, then I can teach an entire circuit course online. At that time, for my private project, I had an undergraduate help me, and the two of us built an online laboratory simulation site. It’s ancient now, but if you google websim, you can still see it today. At some point, a couple hundred people would come and do online simulation labs everyday and that convinced me that we can do large-scale online education.

TSD: Why are some changes needed in the education sector?  

AA: It’s actually shocking. Technology has transformed every field known to mankind. But if you look at education of 50 or 100 years ago, the classroom doesn’t look very different. Innovation in education has been tragically slower, if any at all, than communication, healthcare or transportation and pretty much every other field. The last big innovation in education was the printing press and then in the mid-1800s you have blackboards. Big innovations are few and far between compared to other fields. When I was a kindergartener in India, [we had] that same classroom with a teacher and chalkboard and all of us sitting in rows. That’s not very different from what a classroom looks like today. But our children have completely changed. They’re completely tech-savvy. They study at different times. Actually, we find that most videos with adult learners are watched between midnight and 2 a.m., and yet we have 8 a.m. in the morning classes.

TSD: Do you see MOOCs replacing traditional education?

AA: I don’t see MOOCs ever replacing traditional education, but I believe that with technology, traditional education will change. I believe in ten years, campus education will not look the same as campus education ten years ago. MOOCs and online education will blend into campus education and the blended model will become the new model. There are a number of studies that show the blended model is superior to a purely in-person model.

TSD: Are you working on any projects right now?

AA: A number of them. Yesterday (Feb. 18), we announced a major partnership to educate refugees. Kiron University is a refugee university, so we announced a partnership with them to educate refugees online. edX can give [refugees] free verified certificates and some of our university partners give them up to two years of campus credits for those courses. So that’s one of our exciting announcements.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.


Contact Ariel Liu at aliu15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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