Harvard and MIT Establish Nonprofit to Expand Higher Education Opportunities
With a staggering $800 million at their disposal, officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University are setting their sights on the future of online learning. After two years of contemplation, they’ve unveiled Axim Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting learners who have traditionally been underserved by higher education.
Background Story of Axim Collaborative
Stephanie Khurana, the newly-appointed CEO of Axim Collaborative, spoke with EdSurge about the organization’s mission: “The focus is to really help postsecondary completion and issues of economic mobility.” But this ambitious endeavor has a complex backstory.
In 2021, the sale of the edX online learning platform, co-founded by MIT and Harvard, to private company 2U generated the $800 million that now funds Axim Collaborative. The transaction was met with controversy as edX, originally a nonprofit, had collaborated with over 150 prestigious colleges to offer affordable online courses. Critics viewed the sale as a betrayal of trust. In response, MIT and Harvard officials emphasized the positive impact the $800 million could have on online education.
The Budget for Axim Collaborative
Axim Collaborative plans to use its massive budget conservatively, operating on an annual budget of $25 to $30 million to fund a series of smaller grants and collaborations. The nonprofit will also continue managing the Open edX platform, the open-source system hosting edX courses.
However, education consultant and blogger Phil Hill criticized the organization’s spending approach, arguing that they could do more with such a significant investment. He also questioned the uniqueness of Axim Collaborative, as many existing nonprofits and philanthropic organizations are already working to improve college completion rates and access.
The Role of Axim Collaborative
Khurana counters this by emphasizing Axim Collaborative’s role as a catalyst in connecting existing players and colleges, leveraging the expertise and research capabilities of MIT and Harvard professors. The organization plans to partner with others to support projects that enhance student engagement, college outcomes, and career development through research, technology, and organizational management.
As the former chief operating officer of venture philanthropy organization Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Khurana is cautious about specifying the types of grants and research Axim Collaborative will pursue initially. Her first step involves “really listening and learning to understand how we can bring [our resources] to catalyze innovation” and doing so “with humility.”
She believes that establishing a sustainable organization is the best way to support the most students: “The best stewardship is to help existing institutions sustain and grow and adapt to support those learners over time.” With this mindset, Khurana is confident that Axim Collaborative can make a significant difference.
The Promise of MOOCs
In 2012, MIT and Harvard each invested $30 million in edX during the height of excitement around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The goal was to democratize elite educational opportunities. As MOOCs evolved, it became clear that most students were dropping out, and those who remained were self-driven, college-educated individuals seeking new skills. Consequently, edX and its rival Coursera shifted focus toward offering low-cost certificate programs in technical subjects.
Despite growing to offer over 3,000 courses and attracting 35 million learners, edX struggled to compete with Coursera. Axim Collaborative now aims to refocus on the original promise of MOOCs, but with a more comprehensive understanding of the factors affecting access to quality education and career opportunities.