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Tech company 2U will pay $800 million to buy edX, online education platform MIT and Harvard created

Anant Agarwal, founder and chief executive of the online education platform edX, at the organization's offices in Cambridge, Mass., in 2013. (Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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Nine years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University teamed up to create a nonprofit platform called edX to deliver a curated selection of online courses from prominent universities, available free to the world. It was a major player in a movement that promised to be a game changer for higher education.

Now in a deal announced Tuesday, the education technology company 2U Inc. is purchasing edX and its assets for $800 million in cash. The proceeds will fund a nonprofit venture by MIT and Harvard to explore new initiatives in online education.

“All of us can take pride in what edX has accomplished, including — and perhaps most significant — edX’s role in helping create a thriving market for online learning,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement.

From 2013: EdX turns 1. Now what?

Reif cited data showing that edX had worked with 160 partner institutions and reached more than 39 million learners since its founding in 2012.

Yet for all the change in higher education in those years, including the rapid pivots to online teaching and learning last year during the pandemic, the leaders of edX determined that the best way to move forward was to join forces with a publicly traded company.

“Enrollment in edX courses boomed during the pandemic, which focused even more attention on the value and potential of high-quality online learning,” Alan M. Garber, who is provost of Harvard and co-chair of the edX board, told the Harvard Gazette. “Taking full advantage of that potential will require capital investments at greater scale than is readily attainable for a nonprofit entity like edX.”

Under the deal, edX will be reorganized as a public benefit company under 2U. MIT said that edX “will continue to offer free courses and certificates with modest fees — the current edX model.”

Based in Lanham, Md., 2U was founded in 2008. It seeks to use online technology to help universities connect academic programs with students. With the acquisition of edX, the company says 2U and edX will reach more than 50 million learners worldwide.

Another prominent player in the market is Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif., which offers courses and degree programs from big-name universities. Like edX, Coursera was a pioneer in 2012 and 2013 in the movement to offer free access to massive open online courses. Known as MOOCs, those courses sometimes drew tens of thousands of learners. They were considered a breakthrough that could reshape a market for exclusive colleges and universities long focused on in-person education.

Now online educators talk less about MOOCs and more about low-cost certificates and badges, often used to demonstrate skills to potential employers.

Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, wrote Tuesday in a blog post that he remains devoted to expanding access to learning.

“Joining together with 2U will allow us to accelerate our impact and purpose at an even greater rate — reaching more learners than ever before, serving as trusted digital transformation partners for universities and companies, and furthering research and innovation in teaching and learning,” Agarwal wrote. “The power of this combination will usher in a new era of online learning.”

From 2012: Elite education for the masses