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


It was 2012, and on-line studying was immediately booming. Courses at Stanford and at MIT had been opened totally free on-line to the lots, and the lots signed up—with some programs attracting greater than 160,000 every. Amidst the hype, two competing entities had been shaped inside a few weeks of one another: One of them was Coursera, a for-profit startup backed by the biggest-name traders in Silicon Valley, who argued that they had been constructing a billion-dollar firm, a uncommon “unicorn,” as enterprise capitalists say. The different was edX, a nonprofit funded by MIT and Harvard, with high-minded speak by college provosts and presidents about bringing elite schooling to the world.

Nearly 10 years later, Coursera has actually turn out to be a unicorn, valued at nicely over the billion-dollar mark, and in March it began buying and selling on the New York Stock Exchange as a public firm. It has essentially the most customers of any supplier of MOOCs (as the large-scale on-line programs are typically known as), claiming greater than 77 million learners. And it’s the richest, with practically three-quarters of a billion in money within the financial institution, and annual income of about $260 million.

And how is edX doing by comparability?

“EdX is like a distant No. 2,” says Dhawal Shah, the founding father of Class Central, a listing of on-line programs that additionally provides evaluation in regards to the sector.

For one factor, edX has 35 million customers, lower than half that of Coursera. It provides fewer programs than Coursera—in 2020, edX listed 3,090 programs and Coursera about 4,600. And it brings in far much less income—about $50 million yearly, about 5 occasions lower than Coursera, in accordance to Shah’s evaluation. Course Report printed year-end information from edX and Coursera.

But edX has made very completely different choices than Coursera that had been according to edX’s nonprofit standing. For one factor, edX made its platform open supply, that means anybody can have entry to the pc code. And edX has been extra open to college researchers who need to do analysis utilizing aggregated, anonymized information from the platform.

To be clear, each Coursera and edX are rising—actually each have seen accelerating use throughout the pandemic, with some consultants saying this marks one other MOOC second. And each provide merchandise which can be fairly comparable, and make most of their income by providing tech-related programs to individuals who already maintain faculty levels.

The query is whether or not Coursera’s lead may widen extra dramatically down the road, contemplating the phenomenon of the “network effect”—that a networked system will get extra helpful the extra customers it has. While there’s competitors in internet search, as an illustration, Google has 92 % of the market, whereas the closest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, has a mere 2 %.

Since each Coursera and edX refine their course platforms by analyzing mixture pupil habits, may the identical factor occur within the MOOC area?

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

Downsides of Openness?

Colleges and universities typically boast of their nonprofit standing as placing them above the profit-making motives of the personal sector, and edX and its members have touted the educational tradition they’ve introduced to their course platform.

The resolution to make edX open supply epitomizes that ethos. And the nonprofit touts its openness when it tries to recruit college companions (it has about 133 companions, in contrast to greater 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 chief of the nonprofit from its inception. That means at any time faculties know they’re in a position to take their programs and supplies and run them themselves, he provides.


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The open supply structure sometimes strikes slower, although, since neighborhood members are in a position to weigh in on adjustments.

“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 in a position to elevate extra money, and to elevate it extra shortly than edX, although edX was began with a hefty $30 million every from Harvard and MIT. Money seems to be key for constructing tech platforms, each when it comes to software program growth and constructing out partnerships, programs and advertising and marketing. (To be honest, Coursera’s founders, who had been Stanford professors, additionally noticed their mission as opening up schooling, they usually initially trying into being a nonprofit—however decided it would be harder to fundraise that way.)

The end result, says Hill, is that Coursera’s software program could not have as many options or selection, however it’s constructed to be simple to use. “Go to edX and look at the platform for creating courses there—it is cumbersome and difficult,” he provides. “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 additionally taken very completely different approaches when it comes to technique, says Hill.

For Coursera, the objective has lengthy been to go public, and in 2017 the corporate employed a CEO who had no background in schooling however had expertise getting a monetary tech firm by means of an IPO. That CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda, streamlined Coursera’s choices and developed methods to develop in ways in which would assist usher in income. In March Maggioncalda, who nonetheless leads Coursera, helped ring the opening bell of the NYSE in honor of the corporate finishing its IPO.

EdX’s technique, in the meantime, 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, government director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and author of a book on the way forward for credentials, says he has additionally 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 issues otherwise.

“I’m not sure what you mean by distant second,” he says, disputing the notion that there’s a rising 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 within the area, being the primary to provide what he calls “stackable credentials.” An instance of what he means is edX’s “MicroMasters” packages, which let college students take a fraction of a grasp’s program on-line for a certificates, with the choice of making use of to end the total grasp’s diploma in particular 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 finished due to a tutorial mission fairly than the underside 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 subsequent?

“In terms of our strategy, we’ll simply double down on increasing access,” says Agarwal. He factors out that edX stays dedicated to providing free variations of its programs, and to persevering with to develop low-cost levels, just 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 each edX and Coursera.

One of them is the University of Michigan, the place affiliate vice provost for innovation James DeVaney says that the spirit of competitors between edX and Coursera has pushed each to “refine and sharpen their focus.”

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

In the top, each edX and Coursera will want to maintain their faculty and college companions glad to win long-term success, since each have contracts with companions that can 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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