MIT’s dean of digital learning steps down as backlash from edX sale rises

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s dean of digital learning has resigned due to a faculty revolt against the sale of non-profit online course platform edX to for-profit competitor 2U, Times Higher Education can reveal.

Krishna Rajagopal, who announced his departure, told his colleagues that he had “persistent serious reservations about the way forward for edX that MIT has announced”. Meanwhile, many of her colleagues have pledged to create a new, nonprofit alternative platform to deliver their courses online.

MIT created edX with Harvard University and developed it to have 160 partner institutions serving nearly 40 million students, many of them overseas – to recognize that the idea of ​​providing elite-level courses for free would struggle to ensure financial sustainability.

But the sale of the platform to 2U for $ 800 million (£ 580 million) has been criticized by several MIT professors as a betrayal of the institution’s president, L. Rafael Reif.

“This is going to wreak havoc on the deplorable and reprehensible for-profit education industry in the United States,” said Susan Silbey, professor of sociology and management at MIT.

Other people who declared their dismay at the sale – and promised to quit edX for the planned alternative organized by the faculty – included Esther Duflo, Nobel Prize-winning professor of development economics and poverty alleviation at the MIT.

Professor Duflo said the free distribution of MIT courses on edX has helped many students abroad in recent years – including some who have subsequently taken regular MIT courses – and said such The work did not now appear to be “compatible with” edX’s apparent mission under 2U control.

Executives at MIT and 2U – a 13-year-old company that works with nonprofit colleges and universities to distribute their courses online – have defended their deal as a cautious response to market conditions that enjoys broad support. in academia and beyond.

MIT reiterated Professor Reif’s position that selling “was the most responsible way forward” given the rising costs of the edX grant. “We respect that the response to the recent announcement has been varied and personal,” said an MIT spokeswoman.

Christopher Paucek, CEO and co-founder of 2U, said he has seen an “overwhelmingly positive response” from both edX and 2U partners. 2U, which will benefit from the creation of a combined entity with access to over 50 million students worldwide, is committed to “ensuring affordability” through the use of free courses.

Professor Rajagopal, who will remain a physics professor at MIT, declined to comment. However, in an email sent to colleagues on the day the sale was announced, seen by THE, he says, “There is… broad agreement on the positive and negative aspects of this particular deal with 2U. However, when I add up the pros and cons, I have serious reservations about the way ahead for edX as announced by MIT.

External evaluations of the edX-2U deal have largely reflected a split between longtime skeptics of for-profit education and industry leaders who recognize the risks but are prepared to withhold potential criticisms while the partnership is growing.

The latter includes Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, which runs one of the country’s largest online operations. Professor Crow said he wished ASU had the resources to make the purchase of edX itself, recognized the difficulty of maintaining its nonprofit mission, and predicted that MIT and Harvard would do so. good use of income from sales in another nonprofit business. .

However, Stephanie Hall, a senior member of the Century Foundation, noted that the agreement requires edX to offer free classes for only five years. “So 2U basically bought a huge lead generator that will help them export a predatory model on a larger scale to low and middle income countries,” Dr Hall said.

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