Today, Harvard, MIT, and edX announced that edX, their 2012 joint venture into online education, would be sold for $800 million to 2U, a leading educational technology business. 2U is an online programme manager that is publicly traded on the NASDAQ and is predicted to generate $1 billion in revenue by 2021. The company provides digital platforms, marketing, and logistical support to colleges and institutions so that they can offer online courses, but it does not give degrees.
2U will own and operate edX as a public benefit entity, which means that in addition to creating value for shareholders, edX will provide a specific public benefit—in this case, online courses, some of which can be audited for free—as part of the agreement, which is subject to approval by Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey ’92. edX currently provides over 3,000 online courses. “2U’s network will expand to include more than 230 partners, including over 185 nonprofit schools and universities and 19 of the top 20 ranked universities globally,” according to a University statement.
The most essential feature of the partnership with 2U, according to Harvard University provost Alan M. Garber, is that the company would maintain edX’s purpose. “They’ve promised to continuing to offer free audit tracks—basically, free courses—in a variety of areas. And there are other parts of the agreement that give us a lot of confidence” that they will continue to make “great courses available at little or no cost to learners all across the world,” according to Garber.
The transaction’s earnings will go to a nonprofit entity led by Harvard and MIT that will work on “transforming educational outcomes” and “tackling learning disparities.” The unnamed nonprofit will work with community colleges and other educational institutions that serve underserved communities, as well as other nonprofits, businesses, and governments, to address educational inequities and the challenges of workforce reskilling in the face of forces like globalisation and technological innovation. “We’ll hash out the specifics of what it will do over the coming months as we engage with faculty at Harvard,” Garber added.
This Harvard-MIT-led organisation will also keep control of the open source software platform that underpins edX and will collaborate with 2U to improve it. This implies that government customers, such as Israel, France, Russia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, will be allowed to continue to benefit from its many capabilities. “This was a major consideration,” Garber added. “We wanted to secure the platform’s continued viability because so many learners throughout the world rely on it,” says the company.
When asked how much of the sale money would be used as endowment for the new charity and how much would be utilised now to support its aims, Garber indicated that a final decision had not been made, but that “a big component of it would be endowment.”
The sale of edX, which is scheduled to be completed within 120 days, does not indicate that Harvard is abandoning online education altogether. HarvardX will remain a part of Harvard University and will continue to develop courses for edX. (Professors will still have the option of participating in the creation of online courses or not.) Much of the teaching at Harvard was done remotely during the pandemic, according to Garber. He also believes that in the future, “online teaching activities will be pursued with even more zeal.”
“The pandemic dramatically raised the demand for online courses globally,” he continued. That does not imply that everything will be available to everyone online…. Many of us believe that for many students, the most successful form of learning will be a combination of quality online courses and supportive face-to-face instruction.” However, Garber said, the massive rise in demand and ongoing advancements in online education delivery signalled that big capital investments would be necessary to maintain edX’s excellence. He warned that edX was at risk of slipping behind as for-profit online education providers invested in new platforms and courses, according to a Harvard Gazette report.Yale University, Syracuse University, Northwestern University, and the University of California, Berkeley have all collaborated with H
2U to create online graduate degree programmes. 2U assisted with the establishment of Harvard’s nine-month Harvard Business Analytics Program for mid-career professionals, a certificate programme taught by Harvard Business School, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences faculty.
There are other compelling reasons for Harvard to adjust its focus in order to better support the greater goal of reducing educational inequity. Two researchers analysed data obtained by edX in a 2019 paper in Science to prove that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are likely not the best way to educate the world’s disadvantaged; they discovered that the majority of online learners using the platform already have a college degree. Around the same time, many online education providers, like edX, began to address the difficulty of offering low-cost online education in a sustainable way by charging fees for some courses, particularly those with a synchronous component (which sometimes requires teacing). Given this background, the sale of edX to 2U will allow Harvard and MIT to continue with the mission of reaching diverse global learners, as they envisioned at the outset.
In a joint statement, Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow and MIT president Rafael Reif said, “Our universities launched edX nearly ten years ago to raise the aspirations for online education and make university courses available to learners throughout the world.” “Today’s announcement will take this mission to a whole new level, bringing a bigger range of high-quality content, certifications, and degrees to a much larger number of learners. With online education quickly evolving, now is the ideal time for edX to take this next step. Simultaneously, the charity formed as a result of this transaction will enable us and our partners to encourage innovation that improves learning for all students.