I’ve been asked by a few different people to write about the EdX purchase by 2U. More specifically, I’ve been urged to write about what should happen next with Open EdX.
I’ll be honest. I don’t really care much about Open EdX in and of itself. I’m far more interested in the ramifications of the sale on public-good collaboration in higher education. I think Harvard and MIT have done significant damage to the landscape and to themselves. They have an opportunity to repair some of the damage (though I doubt they will do so). And I believe 2U has an opportunity to step up and make public-good contributions in ways that they have not so far.
My sources inside these institutions, particularly MIT, tell me there’s quite a bit of internal upset and foment over the transaction. I suspect that this internal reaction is what the two universities were responding to in their series of vague missives about all the good they’re going to do with the money in the weeks following the announcement. I don’t get the sense that the administration has a grip on how much external reputational damage they have done, particularly with other institutions that had put their time and money into EdX. Sooner or later, that will come back to bite them.
MIT and Harvard betrayed their commitment to their partners and to the ostensibly public-good mission of EdX. In the process, they burned through an enormous amount of social capital among their peer institutions. Well, MIT did. Harvard, whose endowment hit an historic high of $41.9 billion in 2020, has never been known for its generosity.1 MIT, on the other hand, has gotten a lot of mileage out of their “save the world” efforts. There was, for example, this 2001 New York Times piece about how, through the magic of OpenCourseWare (OCW), anyone in the world could “audit an MIT class” for free. (I have used OCW but do not consider myself to be MIT-educated. I’m modest that way.) A bit more than a decade later, MIT made roughly the same claim—to the same acclaim—with MITx, which became part of EdX.
I don’t fault MIT for setting lofty ambitions and failing to achieve them. While I find their braggadocio and their ability to suck all the air out of the room to be annoying and occasionally damaging, that’s not the main issue here either. Nor do I find the sale of EdX to 2U to be overly problematic in and of itself.
No. It’s the hypocrisy.
The creation of EdX was positioned as a direct response to those dirty, grubby capitalists from Stanford who were going to privatize higher education with Coursera. EdX, in contrast, was to be a non-profit. It was a public good. Universities that paid into Coursera were paying fees to a vendor. Those that paid into edX were donating to the cause of keeping education pure.
It turns out that the other participating universities, after getting less input and worse customer service as “partners” in EdX than they would have gotten as Coursera customers, find the noble organization they contributed to…was sold to become part of Coursera’s most direct for-profit competitor. Even partners who were more pragmatic than mission-minded in their participation are angry. If EdX was effectively a start-up that was sold for a profit, then dues-paying universities were investors. Where’s their cut?
MIT and Harvard promise to use their enormous profit from the EdX sale to do great things for the world. Maybe they’ll make it possible for everyone in the world to have a free MIT education for a third time. Whatever they announce next is as likely to be met with eye rolls as with fanfare. And if it requires other universities to put cash in, I strongly suspect that most prospective partners will clutch their wallets tightly and back away.
OK, so what should happen next? How can MIT and Harvard fix what they’ve broken? How can 2U step up and be a good citizen here?
Well, I have some thoughts….
Incubate Open EdX in the Apache Foundation
MIT and Harvard have said they will use the profits from the EdX sale to steward and improve Open EdX. I don’t believe them and you shouldn’t either. Neither university cared about Open EdX even before the sale. It was a passion project from inside the organization. These “stewards” need an outside auditor who can ensure the software is being managed in a way that protects its future. Apereo, the higher education-specific open-source foundation, doesn’t have the juice to hold Harvard and MIT accountable. It has to be Apache.
The Apache Foundation has a formal incubation process through which many open-source projects have passed and many more have failed to pass. It is designed to ensure a healthy open-source community and governance practices. MIT and Harvard should take a portion of their profits and endow a small foundation whose job is to steward the code through the Apache incubation process. This Open EdX Foundation would not be charged with deciding the future of the software. Rather, it should be charged with shepherding the software through the incubation process. The initial board could consist of former EdX members and Open EdX contributors. MIT and Harvard should not have undue influence or control. Once the software has passed through incubation—which is usually a multi-year process—then a new board should be elected from the community to chart its future.
Separately, MIT and Harvard could take the rest of their profits and create an educational research grant-giving body focused on improving global education and educational equity. MIT and Harvard faculty and staff would be permanently disqualified from receiving grant dollars from the foundation. A credible board of academic experts and NGO leaders would oversee the distribution of funds.
If they’re serious about fixing their reputational damage, then not one single penny of the profits from the EdX sale will go to MIT and Harvard. They will want to remove all doubt that they mean what they say about applying their windfall toward the public good. There cannot be the slightest hint of conflict of interest. Only then will ongoing initiatives such as OpenCourseWare as well as new ones that may emerge from these institutions be freed of the taint that their universities have created.
Interestingly enough, 2U has the opportunity to come out of this looking like the most civic-minded entity in the transaction. At a minimum, 2U is more likely to treat MOOC-publishing universities better than they were treated as EdX “partners.” Providing good customer support is hard even in a well-functioning organization. It’s impossible in an organization that is constantly thrashing about for a sustainability model while pretending it’s not a business. So 2U can clearly improve the situation on that front.
But that’s table stakes. 2U has to treat their new EdX partner schools well because they don’t want to lose them. The company has a potential opportunity to do more on two fronts.
First, they should try not to do a hard fork of Open EdX and should instead push to help create and participate in the Apache project. Lots of big, profitable companies actively participate in open-source these days. In fact, many are major contributors. To be clear, I’ve yet to see evidence that 2U is capable of this particular sort of collaboration. It takes a specific kind of cultural DNA to work with a community on something this mission-critical to your business. 2U’s strength is in controlling everything end-to-end in order to deliver on all the details for their partners. That strategy has often but not always served them well. They have an opportunity to step up here and try something different. Particularly in the area of learning platforms, they might benefit from collaborating with the academic community.
Second, 2U should take up the flag of educational research. For a long time now, I have wanted to see 2U engage its partners in true learning science-based continuous improvement. I haven’t seen anything significant come out of the company in this regard. That made me sad but I accepted it. Not every company will do this. More recently, though, 2U has started making noises—at least on LinkedIn—about how their course design process is based on “learning science.”
If I were still writing e-Literate in cop-on-the-beat mode, I would have gone after that bit of PR puffery immediately. If a company chooses not to prioritize research, OK. I get it. But don’t trumpet a framework that somebody on your team put together based on a layperson’s reading of the research literature and invoke “learning science.” That’s actively harmful. Based on 2U’s public record to date, I have seen no evidence that the company’s course design approach is actually informed by learning science in any meaningful way.
2U did hire Gallup to conduct an outcomes study. I put a lot of stock in Gallup’s work for this sort of thing and give 2U credit for engaging in that kind of audit. But that’s not the same as baking learning science into their course design process.
The EdX acquisition gives the company a new opportunity. The staff that is coming over with the transaction includes at least one bona fide learning scientist. Further, 2U’s Chief Learning Officer, Luyen Chou, came from the single most effective company at integrating learning science at scale into their product development: Pearson. For all its flaws, Pearson was deadly serious about that work and did a lot right. (Unfortunately, because Pearson did a lot else wrong, that good work often got buried.) Luyen has seen the publisher’s efficacy work up close and knows what a serious effort looks like.
2U has an amazing setup to work with. My goodness, their partners run multiple identically taught sections multiple times a year. They have the kind of opportunity to conduct real controlled experiments that Pearson could only have dreamed about. And now they also have a platform that enables them to conduct research at scale. It even comes with an existing community of academic learning science researchers.
I’m talking, of course, about Open EdX.
The real potential for Open EdX—for all parties involved—is to grow a more vital community of applied learning science to improve education.
Let’s please have genuine, more imaginative university/private partnerships
I’m speculating here, but I suspect the reason that MIT and Harvard put themselves into a position where their most logical move with EdX was one that made them hypocrites is that they simultaneously did and did not want to be in business in the first place. The world knew next to nothing about Stanford-style MOOCs at the time that EdX came out. If memory serves, there had been a grand total of about three in the world, all out of Stanford, all in computer science. One enrolled 100,000 students. Yes, that was shocking. Yes, it certainly seemed like an opportunity to have an educational impact at scale.
And yes, there probably would be some way to monetize all those eyeballs. That’s what Coursera believed, that’s what Udacity believed, and although they may have been careful about who they said it in front of, that must have been what at least some critical stakeholders at MIT and Harvard believed. So the two universities were going to launch a not-quite-a-business. If one course could attract 100,000 students in its first iteration, how many students did they expect to serve? Millions a year at the very least. Did MIT and Harvard have any reason to believe that they could run a cloud-based business serving millions of users across the globe every year?
No, they did not. That’s not what universities excel at.
Worse, it turns out that the best way to monetize MOOC eyeballs is the same way that Google does: by advertising stuff. Try this: Search the internet for the most recent article you can find about the costs and profitability of MOOC programs. I bet you won’t find anything more recent than 2015. Why is that? Because with a few exceptions, MOOCs aren’t profitable. From a business perspective, they are an effective marketing expense for selling other online programs. Students who enroll in a MOOC tell the MOOC provider what they’re interested in learning about. Maybe somebody who takes a MOOC on AI will want to pay for a certificate or a degree. To make money off of MOOCs, you need to be in a position to sell other types of educational experiences at a scale that is far larger than MIT and Harvard. You need a sophisticated, multi-level, multi-supplier marketplace.
Since MIT and Harvard were never going to build that kind of a business, EdX was never going to be sustainable for them. If it was going to have a future, it was going to be at a company like 2U, which helps universities sell online education programs that can make money. Selling EdX to a large OPM was both a highly logical move and a complete betrayal of everything they originally claimed to have stood for (and against).
The irony is so thick you can cut it with a knife. OPMs came into being in the first place precisely because universities with neither the start-up capital nor the skillset wanted to build large revenue-generating online programs. The classic model was to turn everything over to the OPM in return for half of the (new) revenues. The first OPMs grew out of LMS hosting companies like Embanet. (This was back in the days before cloud-hosted LMSs.) An acquaintance who worked at one of these companies back then called it the “deans gone wild” period.
The hosting company would get approached by a dean who would say, “Hey, I want to build an online graduate program but I don’t know how to do that. Can you do it for me?”
“Uh…suuuuuure. We can, um, do…that.”
“Great! One more thing. My president doesn’t know I’m doing this and I don’t have any money.”
“Oh. Uhhh…I guess we could…hmm…we could cover the up-front costs. In return, we’d need to take, say, 50% of the revenues for 10 years. OK?”
That’s not an exaggeration. It’s more or less the way that the OPM industry came to be.
In the early days, some universities didn’t even provide faculty. All they supplied was their brand. And as you might imagine, the results were often pretty bad, educationally, financially, and reputationally.
Over time, OPMs slowly improved as the market became more competitive and high-profile failures drove universities to provide more oversight. 2U made its name by taking the product category upscale. Programs they helped create generally made money and provided educational experiences that their customers’ faculty senates would sign off on. In the process, the company was able to sell its services to more prestigious universities and build deeper institutional relationships. Since then, OPMs have diversified their business models quite a bit, to the point where it’s hard to make any generalizations about them.
But these two polar paradigms, represented respectively by the origins of EdX and the origins of the OPM product category, are the two dominant models we have for driving the digital transformation of education. Neither works very well. Either the university acts like a business and often (but not always!) fails or the university outsources its functions and often (but not always!) gets heartburn from the deal at some point. I can point to examples of one, the other, or both happening with LMSs, SISs, and digital textbooks, to name a few EdTech product categories. Each situation was different because the contexts were different. But the models and the mindset continue to drive thinking about EdTech.
We can do better than this. We need new models.
I’ve beaten up on MIT and Harvard pretty hard here, but the main mistake they made was when they founded EdX in the first place. It was a knee-jerk reaction, laced with hubris, that was overwhelmingly likely to end up in one of two ways: obscurity or controversy. If these universities are genuinely worried about the future of education, whether their concern is unbridled commercialization or impact at scale, then they need to be better, smarter stewards. Their reaction to the imminent formation of Coursera could have been more thoughtful, realistic, and strategic. Their effort to clean up the mess they’ve made still can be.
- While I’m sure I’ll get some angry comments from Harvard folks about this or that philanthropic initiative by the university, the institutional reputation is what it is. [↩]