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September 18, 2013

Anant Agarwal in Edinburgh, Scotland in June 2013.

Anant Agarwal speaks at the TEDx conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in June 2013. (Credit: TEDx under a Creative Commons license.)

In the land of higher education, where you might find brilliant professors wearing tweed coats with elbow patches, Anant Agarwal is a bit of a rock star.

Agarwal is president of EdX, Harvard and MIT's $60 million online-learning venture.

Last year, Agarwal taught the nonprofit's first massive open online course, 6002, a course on circuits and electronics. Like all MOOCs, it was posted online for free.

"6002 is all about teaching you how to simplify our lives, make things simple." Agarwal said. "I was hoping for a sweet spot, a total of about 2,000 students. I figured if we had 200 students, that's as much as a campus class. That would be embarrassing."

But what Agarwal and his colleagues didn't figure was the worldwide demand for free, online MIT engineering courses.

"We had 10,000 students sign up in the first few hours of making the course open," Agarwal said. "So that was the first heart attack. Then, as the numbers kept rising and began approaching 100,000, then it was panic time. So we were wondering, 'How on Earth are we going to support this many students?'"

So how would a rock star react to this type of panic?

"You know, I didn't sleep for three nights leading up to the course," he said.

And how much sleep has he gotten since?

"We have a very small team," he said. "We have 75 people in all of EdX and we have over a million students. Collectively, I don't think our whole team sleeps a whole lot, but, yeah, I'm sure people catch a few hours here and there."

In May, the rock star and his band of software engineers celebrated their one-year anniversary rather modestly with cake. A few weeks later, Agarwal took the EdX show on the road on national television.

Agarwal is emerging as the somewhat reluctant front man of EdX, but this summer he took center stage, appearing on "The Colbert Report."

"I don't understand," host Stephen Colbert said during Agarwal's appearance on the show. "You're in the knowledge business in a university. Let's say I had a shoe store, OK? And then I hired you to work at my shoe store and you said, 'Hey, I've got a great idea: Let's give the shoes away for free.' I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head. Why send the cow to college if they're giving the PhDs away for free?"

"It's really important that people around the world have access to a great education much like the air we breathe," Agarwal replied.

Colbert was kidding, of course, but he raises a serious question: Is EdX disrupting the higher-ed market by giving knowledge away for free?

Some economists say MOOCs developed at Harvard, MIT and Stanford could relegate the vast majority of colleges and universities to the sidelines.

"It's kind of like online courses on steroids," said Karen Kedem, a vice president with Moody's Analytics.

Kedem, who keeps a close eye on the higher-ed business model, believes the potential global reach of MOOCs will eventually lead to a seismic shift in the higher-ed landscape.

"We're talking about online courses offered to hundreds of thousands of students at a time, globally," Kedem said. "So it's not just offered to individuals enrolled at a particular institution."

Kedem says while the advent of this technology is generally positive, it does create different challenges based on where colleges find themselves in the higher-ed marketplace.

"In the Boston area, you have all segments of the higher education industry, ranging from elite universities that are leading this push, such as Harvard and MIT, and their joint venture for EdX," she said.

And, Kedem adds, we have much smaller colleges and universities that have traditionally competed on price and proximity.

Kedem predicts elite universities will only strengthen their brand by broadening their reach.

But that doesn't come without consequences.

"We see pressure on colleges that don't have a distinct market niche, and as the price gets driven closer to cost as opposed to current market rates, they're not going to be able to compete given their fixed cost structure," she said.

Among these smaller schools is Suffolk University, which brands itself as a world-class university in the heart of a world-class city.

"One of the greatest assets we have is our location," said Suffolk President Jim McCarthy.

Downtown, thirteen floors above Boston Common and the Granary Burial Ground, McCarthy looks over his university's new construction projects.

"If you look out that window you'll see a new building in progress," McCarthy said. "The old one's being torn down right now, but the new one will rise there. We're shifting the focus, two blocks. It's only a two-block move so we're not going away. We're not abandoning proximity to Government Center or the State House."

Last year, McCarthy took the helm at Suffolk, setting a new vision for the 107-year-old research university. At the time, the university faced $360 million in debt. Now, McCarthy leans back in his chair comfortably and he predicts how new technologies such as MOOCs will change the higher ed landscape at Suffolk and elsewhere.

"We're fairly certain that we can offer these open online courses for a tuition rate that's lower than what we charge for a traditional course," he said. "So a student could conceivably take four or five of these courses and end up saving a reasonable amount of money."

How much?

"I'm not sure yet, but at least 50 percent less," McCarthy said.

So does that mean fewer students on campus?

"Yes," McCarthy said. "And that also means if we want to build a new classroom or find ten square feet of space, we're paying prime dollar for it. So anything we can do to reduce the demand on classes, reduce the demand on space, that's a good thing."

McCarthy and other presidents of smaller colleges hope to become deeply involved in the design and creation of new technology. That's why earlier this summer Suffolk decided to partner with EdX to create a free online course on the history of Boston.

"This is a home-grown MOOC, and it's got an appropriately limited role in our overall set of academic offerings," he said.

But why the limited role for MOOCs at Suffolk? While other schools are jumping in with both feet, McCarthy believes MOOCs are not the answer to the fundamental challenges of educating the vast majority of college students.

"A massive online course may well have an important role in community college education, and EdX is working on this, but this is where the hype is hype," he said.

Massachusetts has long been a leader in higher education. Fast forward to 21st century Cambridge, where Agarwal continues to believe that online learning is a rising tide that will lift all boats.

"It will absolutely enhance the brands of universities that experiment with online techniques and are seen as innovators and leaders," he said.

And Agarwal and other MOOC supporters say this technology will also enhance the brand of universities that decide to use it to offer a broader array of courses for students on their own campuses ­and online.

technology, technology and innovation, new business models, increasing access and success, confronting cost, MOOCs

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