Here Comes the Democratization of Higher Ed

Harvard, MIT Venture Aims to Fill India’s Education Gap

By Visi R. Tilak


How would you like to take courses from Harvard and MIT anywhere in the world?

Professor Anant Agarwal from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, heads an organization called edX, which he says has a vision to “Democratize education, transform lives and reinvent campus education.”

Non-profit edX makes online courses from leading universities like Harvard, MIT and Berkeley available to anyone worldwide, for free. It is funded by Harvard and MIT, who both invested $30 million in the company.

Mr. Agarwal sees particular potential in India, where many of the college-age population compete for a limited amount of places at schools. The professor, who used to head the Artificial Intelligence department at MIT, says India needs to make high quality education from world-class universities available to this large target market.

“In India, there is extreme competition for a very small number of seats at universities,” he says.

In June, edX completed its first MIT course, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore level course as rigorous as the MIT on-campus one, according to Mr. Agarwal, who taught it himself with a team of seven others.  He says students from 160 countries were represented in the online course. India accounted for the second-largest number of enrollees, with approximately 20,000, while the most – about 60,000 – came from the U.S.

“Learners from India were diverse: students enrolled at IITs and other schools, students preparing to apply to universities. This not only speaks to diversity within the country itself, it also speaks to edX’s goal of embracing diversity as a whole,” Mr. Agarwal says.

MIT received 18,000 applications and accepted 1,600 students for on-campus education last semester. According to Mr. Agarwal, there were 155,000 registrations worldwide for edX’s first course, 23,000 online learners who completed the first problem set, 9,000 who passed the midterm, and nearly 7,200 who passed the course.

Mr. Anant Agarwal.

“Although the attrition rate may seem high at first glance, if you look at the number in absolute terms, it is as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT,” says Mr. Agarwal.

He believes that edX provides access to quality higher education for anyone who has Internet and can master the work. It is not based on a learner’s ability to pay a top university, and it is not reserved for the small percentage that can be accepted due to on-campus space and resource limitations.

In India, Mr. Agarwal says, the dilemma of how to educate everyone who has the talent and intellect but not the resources is even more pronounced. “The university infrastructure in India simply cannot accommodate the talent.”

The next natural progression would be partnerships with educational institutions in India, Mr. Agarwal says, adding that discussions are underway with some IITs in the country.

He says that some of the biggest employers of IT talent in India, including Infosys 500209.BY -2.77% and Wipro, have expressed an interest in hiring students with credentials from edX, though discussions are at a very early stage.

“I was one of the fortunate students who was able to enter the funnel in the traditional way, both in India and in the United States. As edX casts its net across the world, I would like to see other students in India reap the benefits of high quality education,” says the professor, who was born in Mangalore and is a graduate of IIT Madras.

“Perhaps edX will help educate the next Jonas Salk? Or Narayan Murthy? Or Azim Premji?  The opportunities are endless,” he adds.

Visi R. Tilak is freelance writer with bylines in publications such as the Boston Globe, Indian Express, India Today and Tehelka.  She can be reached via email, her website or on Twitter @vtilak.