Elite Colleges Started EdX as a Nonprofit Alternative to Coursera. How...


Elite Colleges Started EdX as a Nonprofit Alternative to Coursera. How Is It Doing?

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 13, 2021

Elite Colleges Started EdX as a Nonprofit Alternative to Coursera. How Is It Doing?
Anant Agarwal, the longtime leader of edX, saw his MIT online course about circuits go viral a decade ago. He says his focus is on educational opportunity, not profits.

It was 2012, and online learning was suddenly booming. Courses at Stanford and at MIT were opened for free online to the masses, and the masses signed up—with some courses attracting more than 160,000 each. Amidst the hype, two competing entities were formed within a few weeks of each other: One of them was Coursera, a for-profit startup backed by the biggest-name investors in Silicon Valley, who argued that they were building a billion-dollar company, a rare “unicorn,” as venture capitalists say. The other was edX, a nonprofit funded by MIT and Harvard, with high-minded talk by university provosts and presidents about bringing elite education to the world.

Nearly 10 years later, Coursera has in fact become a unicorn, valued at well over the billion-dollar mark, and in March it started trading on the New York Stock Exchange as a public company. It has the most users of any provider of MOOCs (as the large-scale online courses are sometimes called), claiming more than 77 million learners. And it is the richest, with nearly three-quarters of a billion in cash in the bank, and annual revenue of about $260 million.

And how is edX doing by comparison?

“EdX is like a distant No. 2,” says Dhawal Shah, the founder of Class Central, a directory of online courses that also offers analysis about the sector.

For one thing, edX has 35 million users, less than half that of Coursera. It offers fewer courses than Coursera—in 2020, edX listed 3,090 courses and Coursera about 4,600. And it brings in far less revenue—about $50 million annually, about five times less than Coursera, according to Shah’s analysis. Course Report published year-end data from edX and Coursera.

But edX has made very different decisions than Coursera that were consistent with edX’s nonprofit status. For one thing, edX made its platform open source, meaning anyone can have access to the computer code. And edX has been more open to university researchers who want to do research using aggregated, anonymized data from the platform.

To be clear, both Coursera and edX are growing—in fact both have seen accelerating use during the pandemic, with some experts saying this marks another MOOC moment. And both offer products that are pretty similar, and make most of their revenue by offering tech-related courses to people who already hold college degrees.

The question is whether Coursera’s lead could widen more dramatically down the line, considering the phenomenon of the “network effect”—that a networked system gets more useful the more users it has. While there’s competition in internet search, for instance, Google has 92 percent of the market, while the nearest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, has a mere 2 percent.

Since both Coursera and edX refine their course platforms by analyzing aggregate student behavior, could the same thing happen in the MOOC space?

“It [can] create this cycle that naturally leads to the winner-takes-all,” says Phil Hill, a longtime edtech consultant.

Downsides of Openness?

Colleges and universities often boast of their nonprofit status as putting them above the profit-making motives of the private sector, and edX and its members have touted the academic culture they’ve brought to their course platform.

The decision to make edX open source epitomizes that ethos. And the nonprofit touts its openness when it tries to recruit university partners (it has about 133 partners, compared to more than 200 at Coursera).

“Universities and colleges don’t have the fear of lock-in,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, who has been a leader of the nonprofit from its inception. That means at any time colleges know they are able to take their courses and materials and run them themselves, he adds.

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The open source architecture typically moves slower, though, since community members are able to weigh in on changes.

“EdX being open source, they probably can’t make the changes as quickly as possible,” says Shah. “They have a different set of stakeholders that Coursera doesn’t have.”

And by being a venture-backed for-profit, Coursera was able to raise more money, and to raise it more quickly than edX, even though edX was started with a hefty $30 million each from Harvard and MIT. Money turns out to be key for building tech platforms, both in terms of software development and building out partnerships, courses and marketing. (To be fair, Coursera's founders, who were Stanford professors, also saw their mission as opening up education, and they originally looking into being a nonprofit—but decided it would be harder to fundraise that way.)

The result, says Hill, is that Coursera’s software may not have as many features or variety, but it is built to be easy to use. “Go to edX and look at the platform for creating courses there—it is cumbersome and difficult,” he adds. “You can argue that because of that, you get some more-mature course designs, but it’s not the same as scalability.”

A Strategy Duel

The two entities have also taken very different approaches in terms of strategy, says Hill.

For Coursera, the goal has long been to go public, and in 2017 the company hired a CEO who had no background in education but had experience getting a financial tech company through an IPO. That CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda, streamlined Coursera’s offerings and developed strategies to grow in ways that would help bring in revenue. In March Maggioncalda, who still leads Coursera, helped ring the opening bell of the NYSE in honor of the company completing its IPO.

EdX’s strategy, meanwhile, has been “to throw spaghetti at the wall,” argues Hill. “They’ve never been very strategic. They just do more things but never focus. It’s a tale of two companies in terms of strategy.”

Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and author of a book on the future of credentials, says he has also felt that edX was “much later to find a business model.” Meanwhile he has been impressed, he says “by Coursera’s execution and scaling.”

Agarwal, the edX CEO, sees things differently.

“I’m not sure what you mean by distant second,” he says, disputing the notion that there is a growing distance between edX and Coursera. “We measure ourselves on outcomes—outcomes in terms of how many people have we impacted.”

He paints edX as the innovator in the space, being the first to offer what he calls “stackable credentials.” An example of what he means is edX’s “MicroMasters” programs, which let students take a fraction of a master’s program online for a certificate, with the option of applying to finish the full master’s degree in person after that. It runs MicroBachelors too.

“Our north star has been the reimagination of education,” says Agarwal. “Competitors that clearly had the goal of getting to an IPO have had to change strategies to become a lot more commercially-minded—or change approaches to focus on what might go better in certain markets.”

Much of edX’s work, Agarwal argues, is done because of an academic mission rather than the bottom line, like opening up the platform to researchers. “It takes effort [to work with researchers], and there’s no money ROI—so it’s a labor of love,” he says. “It’s important to our partners.”

Where is edX hoping to go next?

“In terms of our strategy, we’ll simply double down on increasing access,” says Agarwal. He points out that edX remains committed to offering free versions of its courses, and to continuing to develop low-cost degrees, like the $10,000 master’s in data science it developed with the University of Texas at Austin.

A handful of universities are working with both edX and Coursera.

One of them is the University of Michigan, where associate vice provost for innovation James DeVaney says that the spirit of competition between edX and Coursera has pushed both to “refine and sharpen their focus.”

“They’re not the same platform, and that’s probably a good thing,” he says. He argues there is room for both.

In the end, both edX and Coursera will need to keep their college and university partners happy to win long-term success, since both have contracts with partners that will expire.

“As each of these organizations defines their next stage of growth,” DeVaney concludes, “the company or organization that presents the clearest evidence that they are strengthening [universities] for the long run, in addition to bringing a very learner-centric approach to the market, will win over many university partners.”

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