By Federico Basañes, Manager of the IDB’s Knowledge and Learning Sector and Andrés Cavelier, consultant for the IDB’s Knowledge Management Division
When Harvard and MIT founded the online educational platform edX in 2012, one of the American universities’ primary motivations was to make their knowledge available on a massive scale. Four years later, edX has offered 700 open courses and educated 6 million people worldwide, including 750,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Now, this platform is embarking on a new phase of its commitment to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) by increasing the quality of its courses, allowing students to receive university credits for them, and accelerating its expansion in Latin America.
This was recently expressed by Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, during the “Open Learning for Improving Lives” event organized by the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, DC.
Over the past few years, edX has partnered with over 100 universities and institutions worldwide (including around 10 in Spain and Latin America), which offer courses on a wide range of topics. MOOCs are usually free and last approximately six weeks. Students who complete courses in a satisfactory manner can obtain certificates.
After the November 11 event, we talked with Agarwal about the future of online education in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is what he told us:
Why should universities offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and give away their knowledge for free?
The mission of universities is to provide an education. If you look at what has been written in the mission, for example MIT’s mission, it does not say it is only about educating people on your own campus, so it is important for universities to give education to the world.
What is the potential of open and online learning solutions for social and economic development in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Education is not only a right, but it is critical for economic development as well. If you are educated, you can get jobs, economies will really improve, and you can also trade and partner with other countries in the world. Therefore education is very important, particularly in Latin America and many countries of the world where you have skills gaps. There are many jobs available, but what people are learning from universities doesn’t quite match up.
What has edX learned about MOOCs since it started offering them in 2012? What are the top 3 lessons?
One of them is the fact that we are amazed by the thirst for knowledge there is all over the world. For example, when we partnered with the IDB and launched a course in Spanish, we had people from Russia taking the course. Never did we dream that people from all over the world wanted to take courses from everywhere in the world. Secondly, we discovered that we could really provide quality learning. Today, many of our courses can get credit on campus at universities. That is another big step forward. Third and finally, we always thought that certain types of courses could not be taught online, but today we have developed technologies where we can teach all kinds of subjects online. We can teach labs through simulation, we can grade essays using AI technology and peer grading.
Where is the MOOC model headed? What’s next?
When MOOCs started out, the most important thing about them was how big the numbers were. Today we have 6 million learners all over the world, and 750,000 learners from Latin America. Going forward, we are going to make a big pivot towards quality. If the initial phase was about numbers, the next phase will be about quality. It will focus on ensuring that these courses are of a very high quality, get credit at universities, and that people can begin to get degrees with them, as well as better integrating MOOCs into university education and forming a continuous system. The next big move is MOOCs where you can get credit.
Are you planning to expand your MOOC offerings in Spanish and Portuguese? What does that expansion look like?
Latin America is one of our most important markets. We already offer a significant number of courses in Spanish and other languages that are important in Latin America. We are very interested in expanding these offerings. We already have many partners in Latin America such as the IDB, Javeriana in Colombia, Galileo from Guatemala, El Tecnológico de Monterrey from Mexico, the Mexican government, and Tenaris University in Argentina, but we really want to expand our partnerships all over Latin America. We would also like to increase the number of Spanish courses, and substantially increase the number of learners taking our courses all over that region.
Is there anything you’ve found that makes students in Latin America and the Caribbean unique when compared to students from the US or other countries?
There are many aspects that are unique. One thing that completely surprised me was that when I taught my circuits course from MIT, Colombia had the third highest enrollment after the United States and India. There is a real thirst for knowledge; the students really want to learn. Students are very interested in business and engineering courses because they directly impact the skills gap.
Tell us about edX’s relationship with the IDB
When we first began talking to the IDB, I thought of it as a bank, and I said to myself, what does a bank have to do with education? A bank is about money, and universities are about education. As we partnered with the IDB, what I found was that they are able to create absolutely fantastic courses in Spanish for the Latin American market. We were surprised that people from 143 countries around the world were taking these courses.
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