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Harvard or MIT? Choice may become obsolete with ‘stackable’ online degrees custom-built like Lego, edX CEO says

  • Professor Anant Agarwal wants to launch ‘MicroBachelors’ courses for students around the world to tailor-make their degrees using multiple institutions
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 12:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 12:08am

Students around the world could soon be able to tailor-make bachelor’s degrees with courses taught by multiple universities – including Hong Kong institutions – under a new project by a top online learning platform.

The initiative by edX, a non-profit course provider created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, could also help reduce pricey degrees to a fraction of their current cost.

Speaking in Cambridge, Massachusetts last week, edX founder and CEO Professor Anant Agarwal said the firm was working towards launching “stackable” MicroBachelors courses in three years.

“You can think of education as Lego,” said the electrical engineering and computer science expert, who was recently awarded a Yidan Prize for his innovations in education development.

He said MicroBachelors courses could be used to customise an undergraduate degree and shorten study time.

For example, pupils in the later years of secondary school could take three or four MicroBachelors courses before even starting university, and convert them into credits for an undergraduate degree.

For those not wanting to attend classes, Agarwal said they could take enough MicroBachelors courses online from edX to secure a degree through partnerships with universities.

EdX currently boasts 140 university partners and 18 million registered students.

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A major benefit of MicroBachelors courses was the reduced cost, Agarwal said. A fully online bachelor’s degree could be priced as low as US$10,000.

A government-subsidised bachelor’s degree in Hong Kong typically costs HK$168,400.

The MIT professor said there had been interest in the project from Hong Kong, mainland China and Australian partner universities.

He also said he would be putting the entire HK$30 million (US$3.9 million) received for his Yidan Prize into kick-starting the initiative. Agarwal hoped donations would also help meet the target of US$20 million needed to launch the courses.

EdX already offers MicroMasters programmes, which are graduate-level courses in a specific career field recognised by employers such as IBM and Bloomberg. These courses are 25 per cent of a master’s degree, and at some universities count as credits towards an accelerated master’s degree.

Agarwal said some edX courses were similar to those offered on campuses, such as an electrical circuits course he teaches, offering the same exams and assignments.

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Procedures are in place to prevent cheating, including webcams to check the identities of students and to monitor any inappropriate communication during examinations.

Agarwal does not believe edX is a threat to traditional university courses. But he does see universities undergoing a transformation, with more teaching done online, leaving campuses to focus on experiential learning.

“On campus you can have more hands-on learning, talk to professors one on one, live together with other students, and interact with them,” he said.

EdX was officially launched in 2012. Other partner universities include the University of Oxford, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Science and Technology, Polytechnic University, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Courses include dinosaur ecosystems at HKU, a MicroMasters in international hospitality management by PolyU, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s thoughts on socialism by Tsinghua University.

Agarwal said edX already had about 100,000 students in Hong Kong, and was looking to partner with more learning institutions in the city.

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The other of two Yidan prizes, for education research, went to Northwestern University’s Professor Larry Hedges.

The influential applied statistician is known for his contributions to the field of meta-analysis, which summarises and synthesises the results of many studies to reveal patterns that individual studies cannot.

The approach has disproved studies by economists who previously believed the resources available to a school, per student, were unrelated to outcomes of schooling in the United States, including academic achievement. This finding led to a number of states ensuring more equitable funding for education, Hedges said.