What would you do if you had $800 million to build a new nonprofit to support innovation in online learning?
That’s the privileged question that officials at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have been mulling over for the last two years, and late last month they announced some answers.
The result is a new nonprofit named Axim Collaborative, and its focus will be on serving learners that higher education has historically left behind.
As the group’s new CEO, Stephanie Khurana, put it in an interview with EdSurge this week: “The focus of the mission is to really help postsecondary completion and issues of economic mobility.”
To understand the new nonprofit, it’s important to review its complicated origin story.
The $800 million underpinning the effort derived from a controversial decision by the two universities in 2021 to sell their edX online learning platform to 2U. That’s a private company that helps colleges start online degree or certificate programs, usually in exchange for a cut of tuition revenue.
The deal was contentious because edX had long touted its nonprofit status and independence from capitalist pressures as it convinced more than 150 colleges — many of them highly selective ones — to join in as partners to offer free and low-cost courses online. Some critics saw the sale to a for-profit company as a breach of trust. In response, officials at MIT and Harvard highlighted all the potential good that could come for online education with the $800 million windfall from the sale.
As a result, many have been watching to see what, more specifically, the universities would do with the money.
But Axim Collaborative is being cautious with its $800 million nest egg. The organization plans to treat that money like an endowment — and to operate on an annual budget of about $25 to $30 million, officials tell EdSurge. So don’t expect any one big flashy initiative, but instead a series of smaller grants and collaborations.
As expected, though, the new nonprofit will also continue to manage the Open edX platform, the open-source system that hosts edX courses and can also be used by any institution with the tech know-how and the computer servers to run it.
Phil Hill, a longtime education consultant and blogger, criticized the planned pace of spending.
“I would have expected more than that,” he told EdSurge. “They had an opportunity to do more with that big investment than just perpetuate themselves.”
He also pointed out that many existing nonprofits and philanthropic organizations already aim to improve college completion rates and open college access, leaving him to ask, “What’s unique about these guys?”
Khurana argues that the strategy is to make connections between existing players and colleges, and to bring in the expertise and research experience of professors at MIT and Harvard.
“The idea is to be a catalyst within this ecosystem,” she said.
Officials for the group tell EdSurge that the goal is to partner with others to support projects that build better student engagement in online courses or support better college and career outcomes. That might include doing research, building tech tools or helping manage organizations.
Khurana — who was previously chief operating officer of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a venture philanthropy organization — said it’s too soon to say the kinds of grants and research Axim Collaborative will tackle first, and that her first step is “really listening and learning to understand how we can bring [our resources] to catalyze innovation,” and she stressed that they plan to do so “with humility.”
And she argued that building a sustainable organization is the best way to help the most students.
“The best stewardship is to help existing institutions sustain and grow and adapt to support those learners over time,” she said. “I think we can make an enormous difference.”
An Unusual Backstory
When MIT and Harvard each invested $30 million to start edX back in 2012, it was surprising news.
The founding came at the height of public excitement around free online courses known as MOOCs, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses. In fact, a New York Times piece declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC.” The trend started after a couple of professors from Stanford University and from MIT opened up their courses to anyone, and were surprised to find more than 100,000 students signed up to watch lecture videos and complete assignments, even though no college credit was given. The rhetoric at the time was that online education could be a way to open elite educational opportunities to the masses. While MIT and Harvard set up edX as a nonprofit, two Stanford professors started a venture-backed for-profit called Coursera.
As these MOOCs evolved, though, the reality was that the vast majority of learners signed up but quickly dropped out, and that those who persisted were students who had already graduated college and had the free time and preparation to essentially teach themselves using the course videos. Coursera and edX both pivoted their efforts to offering courses and low-cost certificate programs in fast-changing technical subjects, mainly to those who already had a college degree but wanted new skills.
Over time, edX grew to offer more than 3,000 courses, and drew 35 million learners. Even so, the effort was struggling to compete with its main rival, Coursera.
But it seems clear that Axim, the new nonprofit, aims to get back to the roots of what drove the initial excitement about MOOCs — bringing in students who have been shut out — but with a more nuanced understanding that the price of a course is just one of many complex factors impacting access to the best education and careers.
And in retrospect, the timing of the sale was fortuitous. The company that bought edX, 2U, is now valued at less than the $800 million purchase price, says Hill.