The Indian American-founded online initiative edX is serving as a guide to educational institutions as higher education facilities brace for a fall schooling schedule like no other.

With colleges and universities prepping for the fall, struggling for a balance between ensuring the health and safety of teachers, students, and staff while providing a robust education experience with the COVID-19 pandemic still on the rise throughout the U.S., Anant Agarwal’s edX is providing a way forward.

As of July 27, about 49 percent of colleges are planning in-person classes, 13 percent (including Harvard) are planning to remain online, and 35 percent are looking at hybrid models, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s updated listing of 1,260 colleges, said Harvard in a report.

Harvard noted that Agarwal prefers a hybrid model.

In fact, the report adds, the MIT professor predicts in a recent article published via LinkedIn that combining live and online classes could become the path for the future not just in the pandemic era but beyond as it offers tremendous flexibility for students and can be tailored to the needs of various programs and institutions, citing research edX did at MIT.

Increasingly, schools have been tapping into the expertise of edX, which was founded in 2012 with a goal of democratizing higher education by offering free, college-quality classes called MOOCs, which stands for massive open online courses, the report said.

Agarwal, the edX founder and chief executive, told India-West this development is nothing he ever imagined when he created the platform.

“We could never have predicted a global event like this. We saw a significant uptick in traffic from all over the world starting in mid-March, and we were proud that edX could serve as a resource to those impacted by the spread of the coronavirus,” Agarwal told India-West. “In April alone, we gained 5 million new learners globally, which is the same amount that joined edX in all of 2019. We now have 32 million learners in total, 3 million of which are from India,” he said.

Nina Huntemann, edX vice president of learning, said in the Harvard report that edX is hearing that many schools, including the platform’s partners, are attempting some level of in-person (hybrid or blended) instruction in the fall.

However, she said, as COVID cases rise around the country, students and educators should be prepared for the possibility of moving back to teaching fully online.

“The entire world of learning went from being maybe 3 percent online to 100 percent online in a matter of days due to COVID-19. College students were learning entirely online, perhaps with a Zoom lecture scheduled in the middle of the night if they were in a different time zone than their instructor,” Agarwal explained.

“We commend universities for reacting as quickly as they did to the pandemic and moving instruction online for everyone’s safety, but this is not a sustainable option,” the Indian American professor said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, edX set out to help partner universities and learning institutions across the world address our new reality of fully remote teaching and learning – a move that many had not planned for.

This included the launch of edX Online Campus, which granted access to a catalog of edX courses for free to universities in need, to help faculty, students and staff at schools as they quickly addressed the challenge of being fully remote.

“In the short time period of April-June 2020, nearly 400 schools delivered digital learning content to over 45,000 students worldwide,” Agarwal noted. “This is a multi-million-dollar investment made by edX and our partners in helping our fellow educators ensure learning continuity.”

After COVID, Agarwal told India-West he predicts that every school will have some type of blended learning in place on-campus.

“Blended learning is where students learn with both in-person and online components. Now that we have tried it out and experienced the benefits of online learning, we will not want to (nor should we) return to exactly how things were before,” he said.

EdX worked with its partner schools last spring to assist in the initial transition, hosting a series of webinars and creating a course on “Pivoting to Online Learning.”

During a recent Virtual Forum event, one partner school, the National University of Singapore, shared key learning it took from the previous SARS and H1N1 flu epidemics and are applying to this pandemic, the Harvard report said.

Education is bound to continue changing in the fall, as different colleges adopt varying degrees of online learning, Huntemann said in the report.

edX is a credit-grade platform and we offer many credit-backed or credit-eligible programs.

This became possible because the quality of education provided was recognized by universities as credit-grade. edX also created and enhanced several mechanisms to make the platform credit grade, such as virtual proctoring, ID verification, randomizing problem banks, timed exams, and offering 54 different assessment and learning tools, Agarwal explained.

“Since edX and our partner universities took this bold step, increasing numbers of universities around the world are recognizing learners’ accomplishments in MOOCs and are creating credit pathways into degree programs,” Agarwal told this publication.

“The first program to do this was ASU’s Global Freshman Academy, which awarded the first credit for MOOCs in 2015, and paved the way for other credit-bearing programs to follow,” he added. “Today, learners on edX are earning credit for both our MicroMasters programs, which were pioneered by MIT, and MicroBachelors programs. edX has awarded over 190,000 certificates in credit-bearing courses,” he told India-West.

Since edX and its partner universities took this bold step, increasing numbers of universities around the world are recognizing learners’ accomplishments in MOOCs and are creating credit pathways into degree programs, he said.

“The first program to do this was ASU’s Global Freshman Academy, which awarded the first credit for MOOCs in 2015, and paved the way for other credit-bearing programs to follow,” he told this publication.

Agarwal noted that the recent change is not necessarily an increase in courses being created for credit – that activity continues – but instead increasing numbers of existing non-credit courses being applied to credit programs.

“For example, a number of edX partners looked to their own and peer institution courses on edX during the quick move to remote learning as partial or full credit-eligible experiences for their students,” he said.

“This was done for a number of reasons, including finishing out the disrupted semester or providing academically rigorous learning to their students over the summer for cancelled internships or study abroad programs,” Agarwal added.

During this pandemic, 100% of the world transitioned to remote learning, demonstrating the rapid evolution of the education landscape. There was little to no blended learning or in-person learning.

“I believe that blended learning is the future,” Agarwal said, which is essentially some combination of in-person and online instruction.

This could look quite different from institution to institution, and program to program, but ultimately the learning experience will have students seamlessly switching between these types of instruction, he said.

“One type of blended learning has students watch videos instead of in-person lectures, but gather in small in-person groups to solve problems together,” he explained. “Another type of blended learning involves in-person lectures, but has students do their homework assignments fully online with instant feedback.”

After COVID-19, Agarwal says we can be more thoughtful about how we transition our learning experience into a blended approach.

“While a new concept to some, here at edX we’ve seen a shift towards education technology platforms even before the pandemic started, and we predict virtual learning will continue to gain momentum, as learners and educators everywhere realize its wide array of benefits, whether in unusual circumstances, or in ‘normal’ times,” he said.

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