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Desi Tech

The classroom in your laptop


THINK BIG: Agarwal thinks that online education is the biggest innovation in education since the printing press

Anant Agarwal, an Indian-American professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, is the president of edX, a free, not-for-profit online learning venture launched earlier this year. Agarwal wears many hats and has many a feather in each of those (including a Guinness World Record for the largest microphone array;and widespread praise for his "world changing" work on organic computing and the Angstrom Project, which seeks to address the challenges of extremescale computing). He also taught the first edX course - on circuits and electronics - from MIT, which drew 1, 55, 000 students from 162 countries across the globe. Largely why Forbes magazine named him among their 15 Classroom Revolutionaries, who are using innovative technologies to reinvent education for students and teachers globally. Agarwal, an alumnus of IIT-Madras and Stanford, spoke to TOI-Crest about his long journey from Mangalore to MIT, and on the exciting new world of online learning. Excerpts:

How was your journey from IIT to your present position?

After IIT, I went to Stanford to get my PhD, and then I joined MIT as a professor 25 years ago.

What challenges did you face en route?

The usual challenges of an immigrant in a new land. But the US is a very welcoming country and the transition was not difficult.

You have served as the Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). What disruptive technology will be at work as far as computing/ computers are concerned - say a decade or two from now?

CSAIL is working on a number of disruptive technologies. One of them is called Organic computing. An organic computing chip is one that can observe its own execution, learn, optimize its behavior around a user's or application's needs. Such architecture will enable, for example, a handheld radio or a cell phone run cooler the longer the connection time. This work is being done by my colleague Prof. Srini Devadas and me. I have however, stepped back from this project and am now fully focused on online learning and edX.

What have been your major inventions?

My students and I built the first tiled multicore chip called Raw.

What is the Angstrom Project you are working on and what is its major contribution to date?

The Angstrom project is investigating Organic computing. The project created many new technologies. One of them was a way to build a smart software system for a computer that observed application behavior and automatically optimized the energy efficiency while maintaining performance goals set by a user. The system used techniques from control theory and machine learning.

What does edX mean for the future of education? How is the response to this from Indian students?

edX is creating an innovative open source platform for online learning for students worldwide. Online learning will completely transform education and represents the biggest innovation in education since the printing press. The response from Indian students has been tremendous. We had 1, 55, 000 students take our first online course which started in March 2012. Indian students represented the second largest nationality after the United States. UK was third.

Is it ever possible to give online students a credential that can be accepted by employers without a hard copy degree? If so will this threaten the brick and mortar conventional college set up?

I believe it is possible to give online students a credential that will be accepted by employers or admissions officers of universities. edX has also partnered with Pearson VUE to offer proctored tests for students, so that students can demonstrate that the certificates represent their own work. Over time, edX will also offer sequences of courses and credentials for them. I believe that online learning will not threaten brick and mortar colleges. The reason is that online learning will also transform campus education. I view online learning like a rising tide that will lift all boats - it will dramatically increase access to education for students worldwide, while at the same time it will reinvent campus education. So, campus education will also improve in quality.

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