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The edX Model Is One Promising Route To Education’s Future

The EvoLLLution | The edX Model Is One Promising Route To Education’s Future
Unbundling education to provide more flexible pathways to credentials is just one example of the innovations edX is transforming from concept to reality.

There are two intriguing flight paths I’ve been watching—both stemming from grants Lumina Foundation awarded to edX, the nonprofit online education platform founded by Harvard and MIT:

  1. Build 30 competency-based, low-cost, open-admissions MicroMasters programs;
  2. Launch MicroBachelors programs to address the cost, time and relevancy challenges of undergraduate college education.

Like most grant projects, edX has been flying their new planes while building them.

Understanding Lumina’s Investment in edX

Lumina, like many others, was betting on the idea of “unbundling” bachelor’s and master’s degrees—breaking them up into smaller, stackable credentials that deliver employer-endorsed learning in smaller chunks. The metaphor I hear more and more to describe this type of work is building educational blocks that can connect like Legos. Each block contains valuable competencies and skills that folks need to succeed in a rapidly changing work world. A building made up of such blocks would be constructed over a lifetime of learning. The individual Legos would come from different learning providers, and the blocks would connect to form a strong structure of competencies and skills that all could see.

Lumina also invested because of edX’s vision to establish (with the help of many partners) a range of programs and services that can meet educational needs now emerging in multiple areas of the workforce, including business management, computer science, engineering, data science, and health care. The edX partners are highly regarded universities whose faculty agreed to develop microcredentials that students earn online. The institutions were asked to view their programs not as stand-alone learning modules, but as blocks that connect with others on their campuses, thus enabling students to move among programs. They were also urged to think about how those blocks could connect with programs at other institutions, allowing those same students to move among multiple institutions.

Finally, we were interested in the edX model because it uses open-source software—code that edX was encouraging other nations to use even as it built out its own operation. And indeed, this has occurred with several nations employing edX coding.

Reflecting on edX’s Work

With more than 30 university partners, edX has built 56 MicroMasters programs since launching in 2012.

To date, 21 percent (4.4 million) of the 22+ million global enrollments are U.S. learners. Students from more than 70 nations have enrolled in edX programs. Five nations—the United States, India, Brazil, UK, and China—account for 40 percent of total enrollment. EdX is also preparing to launch new MicroBachelors programs to serve non-credentialed learners who are seeking the skills they need to succeed in today’s most in-demand professions.

Hypothesizing on edX’s Future

Recently I asked Nina Huntemann, edX’s senior director of academics and research, where she thought online learning might be in three to five years and whether she thought online instruction would continue its upward trend.

“I see online instruction trending up, for sure,” she replied quickly. Though she was reluctant to offer specifics about the five-year time horizon, she did make eight broad predictions:

  1. There will be a continued focus on scaling because the demand will be there in the U.S. and many nations.
  2. A growing concern about articulation, connecting the learning building blocks between universities that provide the learning. They will have to get this right because students will need to move among programs within an institution and among others.
  3. A continuing need to break degrees into smaller components of competencies and skills. This will better meet industry needs in many career areas and learners will be interested in smaller, more affordable credentials.
  4. Capacity issues (a major challenge now) will continue. Many institutions are already unable to serve the growing number of applicants to programs in specialty areas such as data, programming and health. This demand is likely to continue, giving institutions new opportunities to try new delivery and credential models.
  5. A new class of instructors—learning engineers—will emerge. There already is a growing group of instructional designers who are asked to develop new instructional paths and help faculty members teach in new ways, working closely with employers and the latest technologies.
  6. More “hybrid” paths—those that couple in-person, classroom learning with online instruction—will emerge. Many similar programs exist, but we will see more of this. The challenge will be to articulate these as credit pathways, to move the learning acquired in noncredit courses and microcredentials into credit pathways. We may see “program approval” growing among institutions for edX-type programs.
  7. More attention to new types of admissions. Efforts to set up open admissions to edX programs has led to new thinking around performance-based admissions. Open-admissions efforts, now largely experimental, will become more mainstream.
  8. Navigation tools will be essential as learners will face multiple learning paths throughout their lifetimes. We will need systems that clearly define the pathways in edX-type programs and explain what learners must know to succeed. Efforts such as Credential Engine will help bring transparency to the growing number and range of credentials in the marketplace.

After years of watching edX, I’m convinced that several flight-worthy planes have taken off. The effort has had a positive impact on many nations, students, along with university faculty and staff. Those impacts will soon extend to community colleges and employers.

We were wise to keep watching those who are working in this space, building the structure of tomorrow’s learn-and-work system, block by Lego block.

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