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Harvard, MIT To Sell Online Learning Platform edX to Tech Startup

By Jasper G. Goodman and Kelsey J. Griffin, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: Tuesday, June 29 at 7:03 p.m.

Harvard University and MIT will sell edX — a virtual learning initiative launched jointly by the two schools in 2012 to expand education access — to the Maryland-based tech startup 2U, Inc., the schools announced Tuesday morning.

Subject to regulatory and governmental approval, the schools will receive $800 million in cash for the acquisition, which they announced would go towards a non-profit aimed at advancing inclusion in education and closing learning gaps.

In the nine years since its creation, edX has grown to offer 3,300 courses with more than 160 partner universities. But a large portion of its more than 39 million learners worldwide are college-educated individuals aiming to continue their learning.

Through investments in new technology and marketing, 2U will be equipped to reach more diverse learners and compete with for-profit platforms while continuing the mission of edX, University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 wrote to Harvard affiliates in an email announcing the acquisition Tuesday.

“The agreement with 2U ensures the sustainability of the edX mission—including continued access to low-cost and free courses—through capital investments at the level required to reach learners globally with a wide range of courses across multiple disciplines and fields,” the administrators wrote.

2U, which was founded in 2008 and went public in 2014, offers online courses and degree programs through partnerships with other universities. The acquisition of edX will increase the number of online offerings the service provides from 500 to well over 3,000.

“2U and edX were founded on a shared vision that online education has the power to expand access, create opportunity, and transform lives,” the company’s co-founder, Christopher “Chip” Paucek, said in a press release announcing the acquisition.

Anant Agarwal, the founder and CEO of edX, said at a press briefing Tuesday that the growth in users that the initiative saw during the pandemic prompted it to begin looking for strategic partnerships last fall.

“We knew that we had an opportunity to take the whole mission to the next level,” he said.

He said edX “looked at a number of alternatives,” including staying independent as a nonprofit. All edX employees will stay on in similar roles under 2U, he added.

Garber said at the news briefing that “it was essential for us to engage in a systematic process to look at a variety of alternatives.”

“This was all about how best to advance the mission, and the connection with 2U seemed to us to be exactly the right way to go,” he said.

The nonprofit Harvard and MIT will create with the proceeds from selling edX will aim to tackle inequities in education by increasing the impact of online learning, especially within under-resourced and historically disadvantaged populations. It also plans to focus on developing partnerships with educational organizations, including other universities and community colleges, that work directly with disadvantaged learners.

“Increasing access and operating at scale certainly brought more people to the table, but those people most in need of opportunities remain underserved, a situation exacerbated and underscored by the pandemic,” Bacow and Garber wrote. “If we hope to make progress toward addressing longstanding educational inequities, we have to invest our time and resources in those areas where we believe we can have outsized impact.”

Harvard Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Bharat N. Anand ’88 told the Harvard Gazette — a University-run publication — another goal of the nonprofit will be to advance the development of online platforms to provide more accessible and immersive learning experiences.

“The nonprofit will support research to learn more about the barriers that disadvantaged communities face in being able to take full advantage of online learning platforms, such as language barriers, bandwidth, and cultural biases in design, and develop actionable strategies to address them,” he said.

Building off of the online education approaches taken by edX, Bacow and Garber wrote that Harvard and MIT hope the nonprofit will be able to “support people at all stages of education” through innovations in learning.

“It is impossible to predict the kinds of impact that reimagining and reorienting our work will have, but it is inspiring to think about what it will mean to meet individuals where they are and to instill in them not just skills for the future but also a love of learning,” Bacow and Garber wrote.

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

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