Why the Future of Education Is Open

The CEO of edX explains to LinuxCon attendees how his platform is using open source and big data analytics to change the world of education.

Anant Agarwal

CHICAGO—Anant Agarwal, the CEO of online education platform edX, is on a mission to change the way that people learn. In a keynote address at the LinuxCon conference here, Agarwal explained how open source and big data techniques are being used at edX to help educate millions of people.

The edX platform was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the promise of redefining the future of education. The edX platform has 2.7 million students around the world. One of edX's most popular classes is an introduction to Linux course from the Linux Foundation, which has more than 250,000 students.

"Education should be a basic human right," Agarwal said. "edX is a nonprofit, and our mission is to change the world of education by providing great, free online courses from the best universities in the world."

Education hasn't kept pace with the modern world, where attention spans have declined and 140-character conversations in Twitter are the norm, he said. The overall promise of the edX platform is to improve quality and access to education.

The typical edX course takes an active learning approach to education, including short videos and interactive exercises. Grading of student activities is all done online, providing students with instant feedback on their performance.

Going a step further, edX is also a platform to advance the state of education research.

"edX is a particle accelerator for learning," Agarwal said. "We can learn how students learn by mining the big data of learning."

edX tracks every mouse click that students make and how long things take, according to Agarwal. He added that edX has approximately 3 billion records of data, and each relates to some student activity.

Mining student data, edX examined the behavior of users watching videos on the platform. The big data analysis found that between 6 and 9 minutes is the ideal length of time for an educational video. Anything longer and students begin to drop off.

The whole edX platform itself is open-source. Agarwal said that anyone can take the edX code, which is all available on http://code.edx.org/, and build his or her own online education platform. Universities and other organizations have begun to adopt the edX platform to deliver their own education initiatives, he added.

By giving away the edX platform software for free as open source, edX is helping to achieve its mission of spreading information and knowledge, Agarwal said. But he also has an ulterior motive for making the edX platform open source: Those who use the platform also make contributions back into the community, making it better for everyone.

For example, a university in China that is using edX has contributed back internationalization code. And Google has begun to leverage the platform, and has contributed single-sign-on capabilities to it.

The ultimate challenge for edX is to be able to answer some fundamental questions about learning.

"Having edX all free and open source can usher in new improvements for learning technology," Agarwal said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.