Online courses open doors for teenagers

Less than one-third of edX's students come from the US, with the second-largest group from India.

Story highlights

  • Teenage applicants are excelling in online open university courses designed for older students
  • Schoolchildren now account for about 5 percent of students at the Harvard/MIT venture, edX

Teenage applicants from as far afield as India and Mongolia are catching western colleges' attention by taking so-called "massive online open courses" designed for older students.

Schoolchildren taking courses on their own initiative already account for about 5 per cent of the 800,000 students at edX, the non-profit online venture founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some have used their results to apply to the colleges that pioneered MOOCs.

Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old from Jabalpur, India, learnt last week that he had been accepted to MIT after scoring 97 per cent on edX's circuits and electronics course. He received the good news on March 14 -- or "pi day", as he put it in a Skype conversation with the FT.

"I am like the first person in my city to get into MIT ever so I have become sort of pretty famous," he said. "I was so motivated by how we were taught [by edX] that I decided that maybe I belong to MIT after all."

Mr Bhave came to the attention of MIT faculty members after joining two students he met in the course's discussion forum to create a follow-up course. Anant Agarwal, edX president and an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, wrote him a letter of recommendation.

In an addition to the small but growing pool of precocious teenagers, Prof Agarwal said about 45 per cent of MOOC students were college age and the remainder older "continuing learners", trying to improve their skills or get a better job. He added that edX also receiving growing interest from high schools.

"I really felt that the quality of education online was far, far better than [my] school," Mr Bhave said. "It opened doors to me for getting into colleges such as MIT which I could never even have dreamt of getting into from my town."

While edX expects to make revenues from selling "honour code" or proctored certificates, licensing content to universities and connecting star students with recruiters, Prof Agarwal said the venture deliberately chose a non-profit model to help achieve its target of educating 1bn people around the world within 10 years.

Less than one-third of edX's students come from the US, with the second-largest group from India. With 55 staff and users in 192 countries, it expects to reach 1m students by May, the first anniversary of its launch.

Critics of MOOCs have pointed to the low percentage of students completing online courses. Of 155,000 who took edX's first circuits and electronics course, about 26,000 were "active learners" who clicked on exercises and just 7,200 passed.

But Mr Bhave predicted that online education would have a significant impact in India and beyond. "Seeing experiments performed in front [of you] has another pleasure," he said. "Also your degree at the end also has the name MIT on it. That is something."