Could edX Have Become a Financially Sustainable Nonprofit?

It’s far too easy to criticize or question actions or decisions after the results are known. After all, hindsight is always 20/20 and, all too often, retrospective criticism is merely an expression of the critic’s ego.

Phrases like “second-guessing” or “backseat driving” quite rightly carry a tone of disapproval. ’Tis easier to criticize than create.

Nevertheless, it’s always valuable to look back and re-evaluate past decisions, if only to avoid similar missteps in the future.

So let me put on my historian’s cap and engage in a re-examination, a reassessment and a reconsideration of edX, and ask if there was another path forward.

I’m not simply a Monday-morning quarterback. The organization I directed, the University of Texas system’s central innovation unit, the Institute for Transformational Learning, faced challenges similar to edX’s.

We too received a substantial infusion of money along with a mandate to achieve financial sustainability. We too received a lot of conflicting and ambiguous advice about our mission. We too had to pivot as circumstances changed and hire talent in an environment where the future was wholly uncertain.

Marni Baker Stein, our chief innovation officer (and now the provost at Western Governors University), devised our business plan. She is one of the few people I consider truly brilliant, and she stands out in the higher ed universe by combining two traits that are rarely found in tandem — she is a gifted and experienced implementer and also an educational visionary.

Like Gaul, the ITL consisted of three parts:

  • Consulting: We were to provide consulting services to the campuses, providing informed advice about promising markets, curriculum design, ed-tech acquisition, analytics and other topics.
  • Programming: We were to partner with campuses, colleges and departments to design, develop, deliver and manage state-of-the-art online programs.
  • Infrastructure: We were to develop the infrastructure to support the future of higher education, including LMS overlays, interactive tools and simulations, and advanced analytics.

Unlike Calbright, we had no desire to compete with our component campuses. Instead, our role was to partner with the UT academic campuses and health science centers. In each area, we could provide services, tools and resources at a fraction of the price of a for-profit.

But this, of course, hinged on the campuses’ willingness to work with us rather than with a for-profit vendor. Given each institution’s fierce independence, collaborations with the system are not easy to negotiate even at bargain-basement prices.

But the ITL was never intended to be another Penn State or University of Maryland Global Campus. We were not simply an extension service or an online program manager. Our very name denoted our regential-designated mission: to drive innovation in curriculum, pedagogy and credentials.

And that mission inspired our biggest project: to collaborate with the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the major university and community college systems across Texas to create a statewide postsecondary credentials marketplace, which would offer degrees, certificates, certifications, modules and other marketable offerings.

Our goal was not only to make the vast online programming offered by public higher educational institutions readily discoverable, but to develop tools that would guide users to the programs that would best meet their needs.

Getting institutional buy-in for such a marketplace was not as big a hurdle as you might imagine. Campuses were eager to reach out to new markets and to tout their distinctive advantages.

In the end, the ITL, along with a number of other system-level initiatives, shut down when the regents elected to downsize the system and redeploy central resources to the campuses.

I believe we were about eight months from financial sustainability, but who knows for sure?

Yet what’s striking is just as the Roman Empire didn’t end in 476 CE, but rather persisted in the East, and much as birds served as direct descendants to their dinosaurs forebears, the ITL, in a sense, lived on, as its enormously talented staff took leadership roles across the higher ed and ed-tech ecosystem.

The ITL’s demise wasn’t the first time that a system-level innovation initiative was cut short. The UT Online Consortium, created in the late 1990s to jump-start online programming under a common collective banner, also thrived for a while before it, too, was closed.

Some portions of the consortium survived, including a centralized system for course registration, credit transfer and advising. But the core vision, a sort of UT United, failed as campuses eventually decided to pursue their own separate online strategies, often in conjunction with OPMs.

In other words, at the very moment that other state systems were expanding their online presence, the UT system backed off.

During the five years I directed the ITL, I learned many lessons:

  1. How difficult the procurement and contracting process is at public institutions.
  2. How resistant campuses generally are toward systems.
  3. How long it takes to hire and retain the right people and reach a consensus on a business plan.
  4. How easily innovation is disrupted by shifts in institutional leadership, priorities and rivalries.

It’s hard to be nimble in a fast-changing environment in a highly regulated nonprofit state agency, even with the most extraordinary team that I could imagine.

That said, one thing we learned to do was to remain agile by partnering when necessary and convincing our partners to work together. Sometimes our partners were small start-ups; at other times, they were industry heavyweights like Salesforce. But in all instances, they agreed to ensure that their tools could interoperate.

So what, then, might any of this have to do with edX?

Instead of following Coursera’s path, edX might have charted its own direction. To that end, it might have:

1. Been more mission-driven. That would have required edX to double down on its access, research and innovation mission rather than striving for financial sustainability. It’s my sense that edX would have been more sustainable had it not tried to mimic Coursera, but, rather, adjusted its ambitions to the funds in hand.

2. Clarified its value-add. For 2U, edX’s value lies largely in its global reach, its ability to market courses and programs internationally, its institutional partners’ brands. In my view, it would have made more sense for edX’s value, as a nonprofit, to reside in its technology and expertise.

EdX’s initial capitalization, in my view, was sufficient to produce a cutting-edge learning platform infused with the advanced analytics and supportive of new forms of pedagogy and assessment. If necessary, edX might have partnered with other developers or modified and refined an existing LMS.

An alternative business strategy would have emphasized edX’s role as a driver of innovation: developing tools, interactives and resources that would be available for free or very low cost across higher education. Had edX made a strong appeal to its member institutions, I think it could have persuaded them to share resources and content to support improvements in education worldwide.

3. Served as a resource for the edX consortium. Campuses face many common challenges, and edX conceivably could have provided consulting services and assistance with program development.

Second-guessing is inevitably a form of arrogance. After all, we weren’t there. We did not know all the facts, pressures and circumstances that, in the end, dictated the strategy that edX pursued.

And now that edX appears to be worth a mind-boggling $800 million, who am I to say that it pursued the strong strategy? Eight hundred million dollars ain’t chump change.

But I continue to believe that edX could have been something more than the course aggregator, platform and marketer that it became. It should have been higher ed’s most important catalyst for innovation, the single largest cross-institutional nonprofit provider of educational programming, research and ed-tech development.

  • It could, conceivably, have made colleges and universities less dependent on for-profits.
  • It could have developed tools and resources that were designed not to generate revenue, but to enhance teaching and meet students’ learning needs.
  • It could have done what Josh Kim and Edward J. Maloney call for — serve as the catalyst for new programs in academic innovation, learning science, educational analytics and ed-tech tool development.
  • It could have provided a vehicle for new forms of multi-institutional course sharing.
  • Its consortium could have reached out to school districts to create early-college/dual-degree courses truly aligned with college expectations.

I’m sure that some will view this strategic vision as an impractical dream. I am myself a humanist, and in the public’s callous eyes, the humanities teem with dreamers without a practical bone in their body.

But dreams inspire. Dreams motivate. Dreams create their own realities. And if it were to thrive, edX needed to pursue a dream that went far beyond marketing money-making programs.

So let me conclude with the poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s heart-rending words: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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