How edX Works

The Future of edX

The elevator pitch for MOOCs like edX and Coursera is that free online courses from elite universities will give millions of people around the world access to a level of education they could only dream of before. In the wildest MOOC-fueled fantasies, teens in the slums of Calcutta and Lagos enroll in edX courses and raise their families out of poverty as engineers and software programmers. But the real future of ventures like edX will probably be far less revolutionary.

For one thing, edX courses have proven wildly successful at registering students, but far less successful at holding their attention. In the summer of 2014, edX released data on 476,532 students who took one or more of 13 specific edX courses in 2013. Of that group, 77 percent took only one class, and of those classes, the highest completion rate was 7.5 percent for a class called Challenges of Global Poverty. The other 12 classes had completion rates of 4.4 percent or less [source: Woolf].

Fine, edX may not become the great democratizer of education for the world, but perhaps it can still revolutionize the higher education in America, right? When MOOCs first hit the scene, the education community was abuzz with excitement over blended classes, so-called flipped classrooms in which lectures are viewed as homework and class time is for labs and discussions. State legislatures even began crafting bills to speed the approval of MOOCs for college credit in state-run universities [source: Kolowich].

But that was before college professors began protesting the embrace of MOOCs as a ploy to trim faculty and cut public university funding. At San Jose State University, where the engineering professor had such success with a blended edX class, the philosophy department publically refused to use a popular edX class taught by a Harvard professor because it replaced faculty with "cheap online education" [source: Parry].

Cries of the "MacDonaldization" of education have shelved attempts to speed through for-credit MOOCs and lowered the lofty expectations of MOOC providers like edX. Instead of being the creators and distributors of course content, it's likely that edX, with its open-source platform, will offer its services as a consultant to universities and governments that want to use its "free" product. EdX already signed such agreements with China and France where the countries will pay edX for ongoing advice and technical support while using its code for their own MOOCs [source: Meyer].

For now, nonprofit edX has a leg up on its competitors; with MIT and Harvard's combined endowments topping $40 billion, it doesn't have to depend on venture capital for its survival [source: Haynie]. EdX will continue to publish brilliant, free courses while searching for its place in the higher education universe.

For lots more information on MOOCs, online education and the high costs of college, check out the related HowStuffWorks links below.

Author's Note: How edX Works

I am now one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have started an edX course and failed to finish it. As research for this article, I registered for Introduction to Computer Science and made it all the way through unit one of week one. It's not that the material was boring. Far from it; it was the most clearly presented and fascinating introduction to computer science I could conceive. I'm just not interested in making it a priority to devote the dozens of hours necessary to complete the course. Like many others who are drawn to edX, I already have a bachelor's degree and am mostly interested in MOOCs to satisfy a curiosity. But I can also imagine million of people not like me at all, who see MOOCs like edX as a portal to untold opportunities. For their sake, I hope hundreds of thousands of edX fantasies come true.

Related Articles


  • Hashmi, Amna H.; Shih, Cynthia W. "EdX to Seek New Revenue Models." The Harvard Crimson. March 5, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Haynie, Devon. "Universities With the Largest Financial Endowments." U.S. News & World Report. Oct. 1, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Kolowich, Steve. "How edX Plans to Earn, and Share, Revenue from Its Free Online Courses." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 21, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Kolowich, Steve. "In Deals with 10 Public Universitis, Coursera Bids for Role in For-Credit Courses." The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 30, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Kolowich, Steve. "The MOOC 'Revolution' May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Aug. 8, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Kolowich, Steve. "Why Professors at San Jose State Won't Use a Harvard Professor's MOOC." The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Korn, Melissa. "Corporate Training Gets an Online Refresh." The Wall Street Journal. Oct. 1, 2014 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Lopes Harris, Pat. "SJSU/EdX Adds More Campuses, Courses." SJSU Today. April 10, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Meyer, Robinson. "Harvard and MIT's Online Education Startup Has a New Way to Make Money." The Atlantic. Oct. 21, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Parry, Marc. "A Star MOOC Professor Defects — at Least for Now." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sept. 3, 2014 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Rees, Jonathan. "The MOOC Racket." Slate. July 25, 2013 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Winterhalter, Benjamin. "Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education." The Atlantic. July 28, 2014 (Oct. 10, 2014)
  • Woolf, Max. "Who Performs the Best in Online Classes." July 10, 2014 (Oct. 10, 2014)