Are schools going to disappear in the future?

edX is an example of a company that uses technology to change the way education is delivered to students. Let’s explore how it works and what challenges it may have in the future.

Ten years ago, our definition of education was related to brick and mortar buildings, teachers and books. In a world connected with internet and where the information can be stored in clouds, new types of business models to deliver education emerge to help people develop skills and capabilities in a cheaper and more efficient way.

What is edX?

In May 2012, edX was launched as a combined effort between Harvard and MIT to “provide interactive classes from both universities -for free- to anyone in the world with an Internet connection”.[1]

Our traditional idea of education is based on a model of physical classrooms, where experienced teachers provide value to students, who are engaged in the class and participate sharing different perspectives and questions. edX sets aside this business model of education and uses digital technology to replace classrooms and teachers into a set of on-line video lectures, labs, experiments, quizzes and peer discussion forums.[2]

The idea of using the technology in this field is to increase the “democratization” of education. In this sense, the major benefits for customers is receiving high-quality education for free or at affordable prices, easy accessibility (open 24/7, no application needed), and flexibility to take the classes adjusted by each person schedule and pace.[3]


How does it work?

To create the content for courses, edX looks for partnership with schools that are interested in posting courses. edX offers two types of services to these schools. In the first one, edX serves basically as an intermediator, allowing “a participating university to use edX’s platform as a free learning-management system for a course on the condition that part of any revenue generated by the course flow to edX. The courses developed under that model will be created by individual faculty members without course-production assistance from edX.[4] In the second one, edX company plays the role of a “consultant and design partner, offering “production assistance” to universities for their MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).”[5]

From the customer side, students just need to sign in, pick one of the courses partners have developed, and start following the sequences of classes that courses present. edX also offers students verified certificates (to use them as a proof of course competition), by verifying identity using webcam and ID.

In addition to serving as a content provider, edX is utilized to research teaching methods and technologies[6]. edX can analyze how students interact with course materials and peers, and professors can use this information as feedback to improve engagement, retention and performance of students.[7]


Thinking about the future of edX

This model of education has proven to be successful, taking into consideration that in 4 years, this on-line platform has attracted 96 institutions, has provided 900+ courses and enrolled more than 7 million students.[8]

However, there are further challenges and opportunities to this company:

  1. Opportunities to expand this model and increase the consumer base. There’s a huge opportunity for edX to improve its platform to serve new customers, for example kids. edX can develop content and methods to target education for children.
  2. Improve the platform for mobile devices exploring new ways to teach and learn. Duolingo presents a good example of a different technique to teach languages. I would like to see how edX evolves and presents new interactive and funny methods to improve the learning process.
  3. Develop more personalized education. Every human being has different behavioral pattern; thus, the same educational method can’t be applied with the same level of efficiency to all of us. By partnering with firms who provide AI services, edX could improve the level of education by personalizing the class experience. For example, on a virtual intelligent classroom the “professor” would cold call someone when he/she starts to lose focus.

Although it’s great to have this digital tool to spread education across the world, it also leaves us with the question: is traditional business model of education going to disappear? (662 words).



[1] MIT News. 2012. MIT and Harvard launch a ‘revolution in education’. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[2] edX. 2016. How it Works. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[3] Inside higher ED. 2016. Digital Education, the ‘Mainstream Orthodoxy’. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].

[4] The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2013. How EdX Plans to Earn, and Share, Revenue From Its Free Online Courses . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]

[5] The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2013. How EdX Plans to Earn, and Share, Revenue From Its Free Online Courses . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]

[6] The New York Times. 2012. Harvard and MIT team up to offer free online courses. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]

[7] The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2013. The Professors Who Make the MOOCs. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016]

[8] edX Blog. 2016. edX Celebrates 4 Years!. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 18 November 2016].


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Student comments on Are schools going to disappear in the future?

  1. Interesting post on how the notoriously inert educational industry has started to embrace technological change through efforts such as edX. I would agree that personalization is a key opportunity ánd challenge for education, especially a mass-oriented platform such as edX will have difficulty to deliver a truly personalized learning environment. My characterization of personalized learning would be more extreme than the one set forth in this blog however. I see it as something truly offering a personalized curriculum to a student, with a variety of teaching methods available (e.g. regular exercies, gamification for those who need a more playful educational method, instruction videos, (remote) one-on-one tutoring, etc.) and an adaptive algorithm that based on students’ performance recommends whether a student needs more practice and through which method, or recommends to advance to the next topics – along the lines of e.g. Knewton’s adaptive learning platform. [1]

    On your last provoking question, I do not believe the traditional educational model will disappear. Purely following online education is usually evaluated by students as having a less positive overall experience, as social interaction is more difficult [2]. It is also less socially desirable, because interacting face-to-face with one another is an important skill to develop for children. [3] I see therefore a blend of both models more likely to gain traction going forward, such as the flipped classroom where digital tools are used for instruction at home and in-class the teacher can better devote its attention to problematic topics rather than general instruction. [4]

    [2] Ponzurick, T., France, K., & Logar, C. (2000). Delivering graduate marketing education: An analysis of face-to-face versus distance education. Journal of Marketing Education, 22(1), 180-187.

  2. It is very interesting to learn about EdX and its huge potential on transforming education. One of the controversial discussions regarding the program performance has to do with completion rates: the average completion rate of a Harvard course offered on EdX is roughly 6% [1]. While some argue that completion rates are not the right KPI for Open Online Learning — as such rates usually fail to consider learner’s intentions of actually earning a certificate — it is unclear to me how these programs will manage to engage students and provide a personalized learning experience that fits their needs. In the end, I think this is a prominent challenge, as it is hard to believe that in the (not so) long run completion rates won’t matter.


  3. D – thanks for this post. I’m a big proponent of democratizing education. However, I think there are several challenges that will make it difficult for online learning platforms to replace traditional education. First, given the shorter history of online learning platforms, they have yet to figure out how to accommodate different students. For example, EdX settled with the Justice Department over allegations that their digital content was not accessible to individuals with disabilities, in violation of federal law. (1) Second, as a student at HBS, I have found the case method to be incredibly value, debating and learning from peers in real time. While online platforms may have peer discussion forums, use video, and other tools for live conversations, I can’t stress enough how valuable real life conversations are to learning.


  4. D, 7 million students is just such a small number when you consider the 7 billion population in our world today – majority of whom (1) do not have access to internet and (2) do not speak English. There are a number of issues that we need to consider before we decide that this is a scaleable education delivery model that can replace schools. First is the language of education: Do you expect international students to learn English before they can benefit from the content on the platform? Second, presuming that majority of the content is generated by institutions in the United States, is it ethical that US content creators determine the curriculum for so many students? Third, how do we standardize the curriculum for students and national testing? How will governments react? Finally, the success of this model assumes that students and families are self-motivated enough to independently work through online courses without the guidance or pressure from teachers/ schools. I think many people will contest that assumption.

    I personally would argue that EdX is better suited to supplement schools than to replace them.

  5. Great post! I love the idea of “democratization” of education. Institutions like edX are paving the way for what I believe will be the mechanism for reaching out to the millions of kids who do not currently have access to basic schooling. As you pointed out, there is a definite opportunity to reach kids before they get to universities – however, I believe the biggest barrier to this is incentive and lack of awareness. Perhaps there is an opportunity for edX to work with governments to spread the word and incentivize people to at least let their kids study online if not at a school. In a lot of places, there also is a lack of infrastructure to support initiatives like this – would edX then be willing to first set the stage in their pursuit of true democratization of education?

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