Axim Online Education Venture Debuts

The Harvard-MIT edX successor appoints Stephanie Khurana chief executive.

Stephanie Khurana

Twenty-one months after co-founders Harvard and MIT agreed to sell their edX online-learning venture to 2U, a for-profit course manager, the successor nonprofit organization has a new name, leader, and strategy to go with the $700 million or so in net proceeds from the transaction. Harvard and MIT are obligated to use those funds and their ownership of the Open edX platform for some public, educational, nonprofit purpose. So, today’s announcement of the Axim Collaborative is an important first step toward unveiling its aims and strategies; according to the news release, those include “shar[ing] edX’s mission to broaden access [while] adding an aspiration to deepen impact for learners by addressing persistent gaps in educational attainment and career success.”

Realizing those goals will be entrusted to Stephanie Khurana, M.B.A.-M.P.P. ’96, appointed chief executive officer effective April 3. Her career in technology and in social ventures focused on education equity, college success, and economic mobility has spanned work as part of the founding teams at Cambridge Technology Partners and Surebridge; board service on organizations such as Propel America (tuition-free training to prepare high-school graduates for healthcare careers) and EdBuild (which explored ways to improve school funding); and, most recently, managing partner and chief operating officer of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a venture philanthropy firm that funds startup social enterprises (including those listed on whose boards she served). Khurana has been a familiar presence on campus as former acting executive director of the Tobin Project (she remains a board member) and as co-faculty dean of Cabot House with her husband, Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College.

In the news announcement, Alan M. Garber, provost and co-chair of Axim’s board, said, “With her years of dedication to advancing educational equity, along with experience in leveraging technology to promote access to higher education, Stephanie is the right person to work with the communities that share our vision to shape and implement the agenda for this exciting endeavor.”

Axim’s Aims

Since the closing of the sale to 2U, stewardship of Open edX and planning for the new venture have resided within an entity until now called the Center for Reimagining Learning (tCRIL), consisting of about a dozen people. It has been led by interim chief operating officer Catie Smith ’02, M.B.A.-M.P.A. ’10—former managing director of strategy and planning for Harvard University Information Technology (and, during a 2021 transition period, Harvard’s interim chief information officer).

tCRIL’s board (carried over from edX and now to Axim, it consists of Garber; Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning; Meredith Weenick, executive vice president; and Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Graduate School of Education, plus four MIT counterparts) has refined the new nonprofit’s focus during a series of strategic planning efforts. Although edX reached a global audience with many courses attaining large enrollments, it fell short of such objectives as serving those who have not already pursued a higher education and helping them to attain course-completion and other degree-oriented goals.

The renamed successor enterprise, learning from the first decade of edX, will seemingly pursue a more targeted approach, intending to increase awareness among potential learners who have not had adequate access to higher-education opportunities; reduce inequalities in such access; and address disparities in educational achievement. The shorthand way of stating that, summarized in the announcement, is “to make learning more accessible, more relevant, and more effective for a diverse set of learners.” Highlighting accessibility and impact, the Axim name is a near-portmanteau of those concepts.

“I’m excited to take on this opportunity to help learners realize their educational and career aspirations,” Khurana said in the news release. “We have unique potential using Axim’s resources and capabilities to catalyze efforts that will make a difference of a lifetime for so many people.”

To that end, it will apparently:

•emphasize post-secondary education, at least initially—rather than, say, attempt to broaden outreach to K-12 learners;

•embrace two-year, associates’ programs; four-year programs; and nondegree credential and certificate learning options—all aiming at post-graduate employment opportunities and economic mobility;

•identify low-income, first-generation, and underserved-minority learners who have not been adequately accommodated in traditional colleges, universities, and “workforce systems” (or perhaps whose institutions, such as community colleges or minority-serving schools, have been particularly resource-constrained); and

•prioritize learners based in the United States.

New Partners, Broader Collaborations

Those are broad objectives—and attaining results will depend on learners’ access to financial aid, appropriate student support, classroom or comparable technology, and more. Even with $700 million in hand, Axim could not hope to address a small share of such needs within its focal cohort. Rather, in attempting to ensure diverse learners’ access to high-quality, engaging educational opportunities, the collaborative will focus on making the most of its intellectual capital. The means include supporting robust teaching and learning technologies; furthering research on and development of such technologies and deploying them to inform pedagogical practice; and—importantly—joining with new kinds of partners and their faculty members, who serve the target learner groups, to enable them to deliver great courses and learning experiences (within classrooms and beyond).

The “collaborative” part of Axim’s name thus seems to extend symbolically beyond the founding Harvard-MIT partners to the broader universe of institutions and actors who will work directly with student-learners. One thinks of Harvard’s nascent outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as part of its efforts to act on the legacy of slavery report released last spring.

Even if Axim Collaborative applies just the stream of investment income from the capital received for edX to its new mission, that would be significant new funding for learning innovation and technological support within the focus population. It will obviously take time to see how well this works, particularly in sectors like community colleges that were seriously disrupted during the pandemic. But with today’s announcement, at least, the effort has formally begun.

Read the Axim announcement here. 







Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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