The Business Year

Anant Agarwal

UAE, DUBAI - Health & Education

Education is Happiness

CEO, edX

Bio

Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. He has served as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He won the Maurice Wilkes prize for computer architecture, and MIT’s Smullin and Jamieson prizes for teaching. He holds a Guinness World Record for the largest microphone array, and is an author of the textbook “Foundations of Analog and Digital Electronic Circuits.“ He holds a PhD from Stanford and a Bachelor’s degree from IIT Madras.

TBY talks to Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, on the importance of an educated civic body, closing the skills gap, and creating partnerships between the public and private sector.

What are the education-related obligations a government must fulfill?

Education is a foundational part of the duties of any government. Education is a right and it should be available to the entire population like air or water. It is the absolute fundamental job of a government to provide broad access to education. In fact, if the government does a good job of fostering education, this positively affects a lot of the other things that they care about. Take economic prosperity, for example. If you have a well-educated population then they will go and find jobs and innovate. In particular, if you teach how to innovate, a good education system can be the basis of a prosperous society as well. Education leads to happiness. It is also the root of public health. Many of today’s health issues correlate with education or lack there of, so any investment in education by a government can be effectively leveraged because it will pay back 10 fold as an investment.

What are some of the key strategies that developing economies should be employing in order to facilitate investment in education?

The developed world has centuries worth of history developing an education system and developing content, particularly in the US, where the education system at the tertiary level is very strong. In developing countries, the higher education system needs a lot of work. In India, for example, there are many universities opening up but they do not have enough teachers. In the Middle East, many people are graduating, but when they search for jobs, there are skills gaps. One approach to addressing all of these issues in developing countries is to do what India did, which was to skip the land-line generation and go straight to wireless, cellular technology in the communications area. I think developing countries can apply the same tactic to their education systems, where they invest in online learning. Today’s online learning is high quality, and is a very effective investment where the government can invest in devices and bandwidths for its people, and then provide education online. In the UAE in particular, the connectivity is remarkable, whether it is wireless, cellular, or broadband. They could easily make online content available and then through nonprofits like edX, where we have free content on our site from some of the best universities in the world like MIT and Harvard, content can be made available to an entire nation very effectively through licensing or other means.

In what ways do you see both private companies, non-profits, and the government working together to form a comprehensive approach to educational development?

The key to these partnerships is public-private partnerships, and I can give you an example. EdX has already partnered with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor, and we launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform in partnership with them. They used the open edX platform to launch their national platform infrastructure for online education. Similarly in Jordan, the Queen Rania Foundation launched Edraak, an education initiative of the Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development. We would be delighted to partner with the UAE to create a similar online infrastructure. It is very inexpensive in comparison to all the other investments the government might make and it can be effectively leveraged on a massive scale.

How does edX play a role in assisting the government to fill the skill gaps in the ever-evolving labor market?

It is the job of the government to create foundational infrastructure. For example, in regards to transportation, governments will create highway systems and then private industry will drive the trucks to deliver goods around the country. Similarly, the government can create a national infrastructure for online education by using a platform like open edX, and then private companies can leverage this online infrastructure to create content for it.

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