Harvard y MIT: IA aplicada al acceso y retención
Febrero 11, 2024

After pioneering edX, Harvard and MIT tackle online access afresh

With Axim, elite university duo looks to aid innovation more than create it – and keep $800 million nest egg
February 7, 2024
Access aids: Harvard and MIT promised to use proceeds of edX sale to ‘drive the next iteration of learning innovation’

Three years after abandoning edX, the pioneering open-access online course provider, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are settling into a more conventional route to improve post-secondary access and completion.

The two elite universities, through a non-profit they call the Axim Collaborative, have begun redirecting slices of their $800 million (£600 million) payout from the edX sale towards funding projects designed largely to benefit low-income and non-traditional students.

To lead Axim on that mission, the universities have chosen Stephanie Khurana, a Harvard-affiliated expert in social venture philanthropy and technological innovation who has begun identifying partners – largely university-based – with demonstratable skills in using technology to improve overall student success.

“Some of those things are inside the classroom; sometimes they’re adjacent to the classroom; and sometimes they’re connected to work,” Ms Khurana said in outlining the strategies that Axim hopes to accelerate. The goal, she said, is to “just fill those holes and overcome those barriers, with these innovations”.

The need is clearly there. Only about 60 per cent of US high school leavers enrol in college, and just about 60 per cent of them earn a degree, leaving the country with some 40 million people who have spent some time at university but lack a qualification – a costly outcome that is substantially worse among racial minorities.

Less clear, however, is whether and how successfully higher education reformers will work with the progeny of two prominent and wealthy educational institutions that already had a promising solution in edX but abandoned it because of the cost.

Ms Khurana acknowledged the challenge, saying Axim is “really trying to make a difference and, frankly, earn the trust of these broad-access institutions”

“They’ve had a lot of people come in and try to innovate, and a lot of people back out, and we’re very sensitive to that,” she told Times Higher Education.

That concern looks central, given the Harvard-MIT abandonment of edX, said Kevin Carey, director of education policy at New America Foundation, a left-of-centre thinktank. “It seems like Harvard and MIT sold at the top, and are now trying to figure out what to do with all that money in a way that is in some way connected to the original spirit of edX,” Mr Carey said.

Harvard and MIT started edX in 2012, with a combined investment of $60 million and a goal of helping universities share their courses globally at little or no cost to students. The edX platform grew to supply more than 3,600 courses from 160 university partners to 42 million students worldwide.

But Harvard and MIT sold the main business in 2021, saying its low-fee model was not looking financially viable, and promising to use the proceeds to “drive the next iteration of learning innovation”. The buyer, 2U, is a for-profit version of edX that has since seen its corporate value plummet to below $100 million and has pushed out the founder who negotiated the purchase.

The name Axim is a portmanteau combining “access” and “impact”. Its initial round of funding beneficiaries shows heavy attention to students in community colleges and the development of artificial intelligence tools. They include such projects as Arizona State University working with the Southwestern Community College District in California to help under-represented students by combining in-person and online services; and MIT, Georgia State University and Quinsigamond Community College testing AI-infused student tutoring.

Maria Anguiano, the executive vice-president of ASU’s Learning Enterprise, is among Axim’s enthusiasts. ASU’s Axim-funded work shows “how the standard model can be flipped on its head to reach more learners”, she said.

Mr Carey said he saw some worthwhile goals, but questioned why Harvard and MIT appeared to be largely reinforcing work done by others, and limiting their planned spending on Axim – Ms Khurana expects an annual budget of $20 million to $25 million a year, including the cost of maintaining a free version of the edX course distribution system – to the interest generated by edX’s $800 million sale proceeds. “The richest university in the world got richer from this,” Mr Carey said of the edX sale, “and they’re going to keep the money and just spend the interest.”

“The appropriate way to evaluate Axim is in relation to the original ideals around which edX was formed and [to] ask: are they doing all they can to live up to this?” he said. “And I’m not sure I can say the answer is ‘yes’.”

Ms Khurana, by contrast, sees Axim as giving a substantial boost to worthwhile projects. “Trickle-down innovation isn’t a panacea for reaching those who could benefit most,” she said.

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