EdX and professional education

By Gregor Kiczales posted on October 5th, 2014

EdX just announced its latest initiative, in which they will offer Professional Education courses. These courses will be offered by the edX member universities and organizations, and will be targeted at “professionals in every industry [who] need to stay up to speed on the latest developments in their fields”.

They are launching with just 5 courses, Economics of Cybersecurity from DelftX, Engaging with Innovation Ecosystems: The Corporate Perspective from MITx, and three courses from RiceX—Basics of Energy Sustainability, Medicine in the Digital Age and Lab Safety: The Interactive Game of Don’t Endanger the Owls. But the website promises a broader array of courses in executive education, continuing education and management training. The courses will all be short and targeted around working professionals’ schedules.

These courses all have a set fee. This is a departure for edX, in that they have traditionally only offered courses that had a free option. No doubt some will cry and wail and rend their garments—as we saw with the  ‘Udacity Pivot‘—MOOCs are dead! EdX has sold out! Universities can just go back to business as usual!

But edX hasn’t sold out, and it isn’t business as usual. The online/blended learning space is  expensive to play in. Designing, building and maintaining a good blended course takes a lot more time and money than it used to cost to send a professor into a room to teach calculus again. One of edX’s stated goals is to help its members generate revenue that they can use to support that work. They have several mechanisms for doing this, including identity verified certificates for MOOCs, xSeries certificates, licensing translations, and now professional education courses.

The idea to target professional education has been part of the the UBC Flexible Learning Strategy for many months, so I assume edX have been working on it for some time as well. But  MIT’s big data online professional education course “went extremely well“, and that seems to have been a catalyst for the larger edX effort. In fact MIT now has a website for MIT Professional Education Online X Programs. It doesn’t take much looking around to see that this is a re-skinned version of the edX platform, in which the brand is first and foremost MIT, rather than edX.

The other schools launching edX professional education courses—Rice and Delft—are not coming out with their own professional x websites. It seems the choice between having a private Professional X site versus putting the courses on edX.org has to do with perceived brand strength. MIT seems to believe their brand is strong enough that they can attract students to their big data courses alone.  The other schools seem to be willing to trade most brand dilution to benefit from the very large number of unique visitors to the edX course browsing page each month. (just to prove it is a university, another part of MIT is launching a professional education course on the edX.org site.)  But all these schools are betting on edX as a channel to reach a large number of professional education students, and the revenue that brings with it.

Many schools are recognizing what edX already knows, blended learning is an opportunity to teach much much better. But not cheaper, at least not anytime soon. UBC’s strategy for securing those resources is to seek additional revenue in part from professional education, other schools are clearly thinking along similar lines. This new edX initiative is a real opportunity for schools that can move quickly to lock down some parts of the space.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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