The edX Student

Just a year after edx set out to revolutionize higher education, the massive open online course platform has attracted almost one million users from across the planet

edx World
Daniel N. Yue

In its first year, nearly 1 million people have registered for Harvard's online learning initiative edX. Those registrants come from all over the world.

He is a 17-year-old whiz-kid from Jabalpur, India who harbored aspirations of building a resume capable of getting him into MIT.

She is a 33-year-old server and office technician for the Cheesecake Factory looking for “a mental challenge.”

She is a 51-year-old mother of three who registered for an online course after reading an op-ed article about the rise of massive open online courses that left her “intrigued.”

He wanted to prove that he could earn course credit online equal to the amount required to earn a bachelors degree in one year.

She enrolled in a blended course at San Jose State University that integrated virtual learning into the classroom.


They are a handful of the approximately 900,000 people who have registered for edX, the online learning venture launched jointly by Harvard and MIT about one year ago. The edX class from the platform’s inaugural year is far from homogeneous, including a wide range of individuals with different ages, genders, ethnicities, and levels of education.

And their diversity does not just stem from measurable characteristics. While every person who logs onto is presented with the same course offerings, the motivations for signing up and committing to completing a course vary from student to student.

The swelling in the size of the edX student body has been accompanied by an enormous expansion of the platform itself. Over the past year it has grown rapidly from its two Cambridge-based founders to include a total of 27 institutional partners from across four continents, contributing to edX’s vision of what its president Anant Agarwal described as a “planet-scale transformation of education.”

While MOOC advocates hope that transformation will lead to a democratization of higher education, low completion rates and edX’s changing economic model makes increasingly relevant the question of who takes the edX course—and why.


Synthesizing demographic data from the month of May yields an edX student who is likely to be a 30-year-old American male with a Bachelor’s degree. But pointing out pluralities does not speak to the diversity of the virtual student body.

Geographically, the distribution of edX students is global: 13 percent come from India, 4 percent from both the United Kingdom and Brazil, 3 percent from Spain, 2 percent each from Canada, Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, and Australia, and 38 percent from other foreign countries.

About 26 percent of edX students are female and about 74 percent, male. Those who register for the program are often highly educated—34 percent have a Bachelor’s degree, 26 percent have a Master’s degree, 6 percent have a Ph.D, and 4 percent have an Associate’s degree. Eighteen percent are in high school, 2 percent are in junior high, and one percent have received no education, according to data provided by edX.

With over one million course enrollments, and students from nearly 200 countries around the world in its first year, Agarwal said he thinks the edX venture is “completely democratizing education.”



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