When MIT and Harvard announced the sale of edX in mid 2021 for $800M, the assumption was that they would really put that money to good use somewhere. At the time it was a pretty controversial decision to sell a big, important MOOC provider to a for-profit company after getting lots of non-profit universities on board to make classes for them. 2U, the company that bought edX, has mostly kept it intact, with just some updated branding, but it hasn’t helped out them very much. The whole company is currently worth about half of what they paid for edX.

But even though many people were frustrated with Harvard and MIT’s decision to sell edX, they made vague claims about the potential good that could come in the future because of the $800M they had access to.

This is not anything truly excessive compared to what these universities already had access to (Harvard’s endowment reached $50B last year), but as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, universities will always find ways to be creative using  ridiculously large checks.

Well they have decided that the answer is to rebrand the “Center for Reimagined Learning” as “Axim Collaborative” and to work towards making learning “more accessible, more relevant, and more effective for a diverse set of learners”. What this means is unclear.

It seems like the areas they want to focus on are getting students to finish partially completed college degrees and trying to get people jobs after graduation. While these are noble goals, there are also a lot of other organizations doing this already. And there is no reason that Harvard and MIT, two institutions who suffer from relatively low occurrences of both of these issues, would be better at it than anyone else.

It also appears that the goal seems to be to set up the $800M as an endowment and budget the non-profit on the interest from it. Again unsurprising since it is such a common tactic for universities, but also uninspired since the primary result here is self-perpetuation.

While edX itself may not have ever been much more than a small Coursera competitor, it did seem like it was a more useful or interesting entity on its own without a profit motive. And in spite of a return to post-pandemic normalcy, it seems like Coursera might have actually figured out some ways to increase its relevance, to the point where its search traffic increased dramatically today (possible because of news of the new Non-profit).

We shouldn’t weep too hard that these colleges are not coming up with anything truly useful to do with their extra money. It has been clear for some time that elite private universities won’t be the ones to create truly revolutionary solutions to problems of modern colleges. We just need to be wary of any future efforts to control the solutions that emerge.

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