Did edX Fail?

(Image credit: Photo by Benjamin Rascoe on Unsplash)


In 2012, edX was founded as a nonprofit by scientists from MIT and Harvard. From the beginning, expectations were high for the platform that was designed to bring high-quality education to the masses online for free. 

That same year massive open online courses were recognized by The New York Times, which dubbed 2012 “The year of the MOOC” in an article about edX and its for-profit competitors. “The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks,” the Times wrote.  

‘Throwing Spaghetti at the Wall’ 

By 2013, edX had reached more than 1 million students. But yet, edX courses and other MOOCS were plagued by the problems with online learning that have become all too familiar to educators over the past year-and-a-half, including low completion rates and lack of engagement from students. 

As a nonprofit, edX had less funding and less ability to overcome those obstacles than Coursera, which was founded in 2012 by Stanford University computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller.

Over the years, Coursera developed a business model based on offering paid certificates and partnering with universities to pursue degrees on the platform. edX attempted similar programs but had trouble keeping pace. 

“I think they were slower to scale then Coursera was and they had fewer degree offerings,” says Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy at Northeastern University.

“They never had a strategy, they just kept throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Phil Hill, an edtech consultant and author of the Phil on Ed Tech blog.  “They had Coursera envy and tried to match Coursera's initial business plan, even though Coursera had much higher funding and a much easier to use platform. They didn't listen to their university partners on what they wanted.” 

Unable to Sustain Pandemic Momentum 

Even so, when the pandemic hit and education -- and so many other aspects of everyone’s life -- went online, all the major MOOC providers enjoyed a significant surge. edX’s enrollments rose from 81 million in 2019 to 110 million by the end of 2020. 

This pandemic-fueled success is part of why the edtech world was surprised by the announcement that 2U, which contracts with nonprofit colleges and universities to offer online degree programs, was buying edX for $800 million from Harvard and MIT. The universities will use the money from the sale to fund a nonprofit that will study education. 

While some observers in higher ed bemoaned the sale, it makes sense from a business perspective as the companies complement one another, says Gallagher. 2U specializes in partnerships with universities for degrees and certificates, an area in which edX fell behind Coursera, and 2U will benefit from the brand recognition and prestige of edX. 

“Part of the rationale for QU is that they're going to be able to acquire prospective students more efficiently,” Gallagher says. “Think about it as a giant funnel. At the top of that funnel, you have millions of people who are registered, or completed, or actively enrolled in these courses. If you can get a fraction of 1 percent of them to enroll in a school program, that's a solid business model.” 

Gallagher says that the vast majority of students enrolled in edX courses don’t know whether MIT or Harvard are nonprofit institutions to begin with and the distinction doesn’t always matter. “The reality is, most colleges and universities in today's environment need to operate with a surplus and they need to have a market orientation,” he says. 

But Hill sees the shift from a nonprofit to the private sector as marking the end of an era for edX.

“It certainly did not achieve what it set out to achieve,” Hill says. “I'm seeing a lot of frustration from university partners who really viewed it as going to be a university collaboration to innovate new teaching strategies and share research, and it definitely didn't do that.” 

“It's difficult for nonprofits to compete, but who says a nonprofit should compete? They had an opportunity to be different and not try to be Coursera. And they chose not to go that route,” he says. “I don't suspect we'll be talking about edX much in five years. It will be rebranded by that point is my guess.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.