A graphic for an interview with Lee Rubenstein including a photo of him

S9 Insights: An Interview with Lee Rubenstein, Vice President, Business Development, edX

What differentiates edX from traditional online learning platforms?

Thanks for the question, Michelle. 

edX was founded as a nonprofit, open-source learning project. Our mission is to provide access to the world’s best courses from top universities to all interested learners. What is unique about edX is that we are the only open source nonprofit MOOC platform in the world. Complemented by our studio tools and pedagogy, our platform is built based on collected data and research to drive optimum learner outcomes. Members of edX include 165 of the world’s top 200 ranked universities as well as several corporations like Google, World Bank, IBM, and Amazon. Our board is led entirely by educational and academic partners, like MIT and Harvard, who also host courses on our platform. 

In an effort to ensure global inclusivity for our learners, edX is an open source project, and the code we used to build this dynamic platform, including over 40 assessment types, and ongoing regular code updates are available to anyone who wants the platform, for free. You can learn more and visit the code repository via https://open.edx.org. Currently, there are over 2,000 worldwide instances of open edX platforms with thousands of courses, being run by businesses, organizations, schools, and governments for professional development and general use. Open edX and edX combined, host over 75 million registered learners. 

We started off with single courses and quickly realized that learners wanted a full series of courses that could help them develop the skills or competencies they needed to be more successful. So, in partnership with our university partners, we created various sequences identified as X-Series, Professional Certificates, MicroMasters Programs, and MicroBachelors Programs, and several full Masters programs. For example, in partnership with MIT, we offered our first MicroMasters program on Supply Chain. MicroMasters programs are ‘backed by credit’ meaning if a learner passes the program, applies to the university, and gets accepted by the university, MIT will credit the learner for 25-50% off of the cost and time of the full Master’s degree! There are over a hundred various edX ‘programs' made up of series of courses on edX to choose from. A MicroMasters Program alone could potentially save a learner $20,000 - $30,000 in the tuition for a Master’s degree if a Masters was their goal. And no one else has that.

What motivates you to work in this space?

When I look back at my experience in the corporate space, and as a parent, I am really dismayed by the rising costs of higher education and the return on investment. The insurmountable costs associated with college, thereby burdening so many with debt plagues so many students and their families. It hinders their ability to succeed, and quite frankly, a lot of these schools do not sufficiently prepare students for jobs after graduation. “According to corporate CEOs, 80% of people they hire with four-year degrees don’t have the skills that they need in order to be successful.” 

When we started edX, we were driven by this idea that learners can sign up for a fraction of on-campus tuition, could try new subjects, and could gently 'fail forward' without risking much, or succeed and discover new pathways. Learners don’t have to worry about keeping a high GPA to retain a scholarship, they can try what they want, and if they realize the material is not a good fit, they have only risked $100-200 to find out. Every edX course also has a free Audit track, so learners can ‘try before they buy’ in each course.

I love this idea of failing forward. There are so many students that don't complete a degree/credential or feel stuck in a field of study they don’t feel passionate about. Can failing forward really be about facilitating exploration?

Yes! We have a dearth of women and some minorities in technology,  which vastly inhibits innovation growth and DEI in the workplace. There has been a historic trend in tech as a male-dominated field with vast populations uncomfortable exploring math, science, tech, engineering, and business in the same proportions. We have solved that simply by making a low cost, safe, and accessible way for any person who has the curiosity to explore whether these fields are for them. We find that learners discover these subjects are neither as hard nor mysterious or impossible to learn or break into as they thought once real quality courses are available they can do online without the risk of embarrassment or shame because they didn’t have role models or the ‘background’ they thought was required to succeed. In simple straightforward terms, if they fail, it’s private and no big deal.  If they succeed, it opens many doors to career concepts and future studies that they falsely perceived as being ‘beyond their reach’.  

Second, many students are competing for a space in a university or program where their tuition grants and scholarships are tied to achieving and maintaining a grade point average. Would you risk your academic scholarship by trying new things that may be a ‘stretch’? Probably not.  With online learning like edX provides, one can tackle these courses and topics to build confidence and comfort in these high-growth, high-demand areas on their own, before risking their ranking or benefits. 

Third, one of the hardest things to do on-campus is to pick a major and then have the ability to take courses in ‘other areas’ that would have required a learner to be admitted to that program. Communications students can’t get into business school for example, but with online courses, you can carve your own pathway and get the skills you want in any kind of program. Whether you are in or out of school, the adjacencies that will increase their value are always available so you learn what you want to learn.  Take courses in science, business, communications, languages, leadership - all designed to allow you to build your own future.  In fact with so many MBA’s being awarded, many employers have told me that they are more interested in a candidate that may have achieved a micro-credential from edX in subject areas that align with their business interests; imagine an MBA that has also achieved a certificate in bioengineering or crypto, who is applying to a Biotech firm or financial firm, to distinguish their MBA from all the other candidates. This is a ‘real thing’!

How do you and edX work to close gaps on inequities in education and the workforce?

So many people that qualify for college, don’t attend. And they don’t do it for a number of reasons: cost, time, life circumstances, career goals, and interest. 

Not everyone wants to go straight to college and then to a career job. Some people are interested in the trades or other professions and they want to start working right away. Whether learners go to college right after high school or don’t, years later, many working professionals now realize they need to upskill throughout their careers. With many industries including examples like IT and healthcare expanding exponentially, we’re finding ourselves with millions of open jobs without enough qualified workers; and 4-year colleges aren't and can't be the 'one solution' to fill all those positions.

edX has created an equity-based program where anyone, regardless of their learning background, can start learning and if they have the grit that it takes to go through these courses, they can put themselves on the track to qualify for entry-level and middle-skill jobs in the most high-demand areas. Employers are even requesting connections to edX certificate holders in certain high demand job skill areas.

What’s on top of mind for you and your team as you look at the next two years, and how you can better serve every American learner?

There are several aspects of this work that are top of mind for me. First, we’re entering an exciting time where we’re now able to assign a skills taxonomy, or common language, to the courses we provide. Colleagues like EMSI, Burning Glass, and Credential Engine are doing great work to create this common language so learners and employers can upskill and become successful candidates for good-paying jobs. edX is already incorporating skills tags into courses to simplify learner navigation.  

Secondly, one of our biggest tasks ahead is working with corporations to understand and value these credentials, in addition to the four-year degree holders. We’re now entering an age where every new worker has had access to technology most - if not all - of their lives. People are learning and thinking differently. This also means that to maintain relevancy, workers will need to take courses that will help them reskill and upskill to help themselves and their companies succeed.

Thirdly, we’re beginning to think about how we can work better with younger learners. Some secondary schools are already using edX or similar online courses; but we want learners to understand what online, self-learning is all about at an early age. We need to develop more tools that continue to nudge learners forward and provide them the support that they need to be successful and complete courses. 

We like to say, “this is not your grandfather’s online learning.” You don’t just listen to an audiobook. No one learns deep skills from that. edX aims to offer deeply adaptive, integrated, interleafed learning experiences that will broaden horizons and help learners think about opportunities never considered before.

edX learners, like Nick, an undergraduate business student, enrolled in edX because he felt that his technical skills were lacking for the roles that he was interested in applying for after graduation. “edX is a tremendously valuable platform that applies to people in all stages of their life. The fact that edX unlocks the barriers of entry to education while remaining legitimate in the eyes of employers is incredible, and I look forward to continuing using the platform throughout my career.” 

To learn more about how edX empowers millions of learners to unlock their potential, please review their 2020 and 2021 Impact Reports.

edX and STRATA9 are offering a special 10% discount to changemakers. To register for courses and receive this unique rate, please go to edX’s website and use the promo code EDX10STRATA when registering for a verified track course.