edX Drops Plans to Connect MOOC Students With Employers

Can taking a MOOC help a student land a better job? Proponents of the massive open online courses hope so. Each of the major MOOC providers—Coursera, edX, and Udacity—has expressed interest in helping connect employers to well-qualified job applicants who succeed in their online courses. But now, after a failed experiment, edX says it is giving up on job-placement services.

That was among several developments described last month to members of edX’s consortium in a private meeting during which a possible expansion of the group and of the edX business model were also discussed. The Chronicle obtained slides from the presentation from a non-edX source.

In a pilot job-placement program, edX recruited 868 high-performing students from two computer-science MOOCs at the University of California at Berkeley. Based on their apparent strengths, edX tried matching them to a handful of technology companies, including Google, Amazon, and SAP. The vast majority of the students were from outside the United States, and many were working professionals.

But it didn’t pan out. Of those 868 students, only three landed job interviews. None was hired. The results of the pilot, which ran about a year ago, were not publicized, but some details were presented at the members’ meeting last month.

The MOOC provider has a number of theories about why the experiment went so poorly. One is that human-resources departments at the companies still look for traditional college experience when vetting job candidates.

“Existing HR departments want to go for traditional degree programs and filter out nontraditional candidates,” reads one slide from the presentation. Anant Agarwal, edX’s president, said in an interview on Friday that the companies already had many of the successful MOOC students in their recruitment databases.

After that experiment, edX decided to abandon its ambitions as a headhunter. The field is already competitive, said Mr. Agarwal, and breaking in would be difficult. “We would have to become a job company,” he said. “You can’t just take the top people from the class and connect them with employers. There’s a lot more to it.”

While edX has taken job placement off the table, it has expanded the other services that it might provide to various clients. The slides from the edX presentation, which Mr. Agarwal described in the interview as “musings and brainstormings” rather than firm plans, contain additional information about the evolution of the nonprofit organization’s business model.

edX has created “a revenue-generating solutions division,” according to one slide. The organization has begun developing a range of fee-based services for different kinds of clients—not just colleges, but also government agencies and private companies. Those services include hosting and providing technical support for institutions that use edX’s open-source platform, OpenEdX.

The organization has also started licensing some courses to institutions outside the edX consortium, including several California State University campuses. The institutions pay edX a per-student fee to adopt a MOOC for curricular use. The price is typically $50 to $100, said Mr. Agarwal, with discounts as the number of students using a course goes up. “Although we have begun receiving revenue, we are still in the pilot phase,” he said.

Even though edX has grown in the past year, the organization believes it needs to grow faster. Many visitors to the edX website leave because they cannot find the course they want, or because the course they want is not starting at the right time.

“Creating quality courses is hard and expensive,” says one slide, and a “small group of universities will be unable to get us to thousands of courses at both introductory and advanced levels in a few years.” At the same time, the “small cohesive feel” of edX’s consortium is important to the organization.

The solution could be a “tiered-membership approach,” where existing members of the consortium become “charter members” and edX admits a second category of partner universities, who would pay annual fees and have less access to student data.

The organization has also tweaked its shared-revenue model for new courses, in part to “reduce the barrier to entry and incentivize partners to offer more courses,” according to the presentation.

A tiered-membership plan would enable edX to expand its course offerings, but it would also create distinct classes among the organization’s partners. Mr. Agarwal told The Chronicle that the plan outlined in the presentation was just one possible approach that edX is considering.

“We’re taking a phased approach to head in the direction of completely democratizing education,” said Mr. Agarwal. “It’s not something you do overnight.”

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