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HONG KONG - One of the 2018 Yidan Prize laureates is Professor Anant Agarwal at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is revolutionizing post-secondary education by helping students earn their degrees through the internet.
Agarwal, winner of the Yidan Prize for Education Development, founded edX — a non-profit online platform that allows students to shape their own post-graduate programs by enrolling in online courses for free.
The courses are provided by Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, MIT in the United States; the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, Sorbonne University in France, and a seemingly endless array of distinguished educational institutions from around the world.
Three Hong Kong universities — the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University — as well as the Chinese mainland"s Peking University and Tsinghua University, are among the 140 institutions that have joined the program.
Agarwal, who teaches electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, sees this approach as the future of education.
"I would like to think education is like assembling a Lego project. People can learn a bit about many things and synthesize that knowledge into their degrees," he said.
A joint effort by MIT and Harvard, edX began operations in 2012 and currently offers more than 2,000 courses. Some 18 million students have signed up online, including 400,000 from the mainland and 100,000 from Hong Kong.
The fact that all the courses are offered free of charge singles edX out among numerous learning platforms worldwide, said Dorothy Gordon, head of the judging panel of the Yidan Prize for Education Development.
She called it the "ultimate disruptor" with the ability to reach every corner of the internet-enabled world, decentralizing and democratizing education.
The edX MicroMasters program — Agarwal"s major attempt to reshape post-graduate education — is aimed at helping students who may not qualify for other graduate programs.
"If education is a basic human right, people around the world, regardless of region, gender and religion, should have access to it. That"s what "right" means. But why do today"s universities have admission tests?" Agarwal wondered.
And his answer is that there"s limited space on campuses, and universities are already fully enrolled.
Masters to bachelors
With advanced technology and high-speed internet, Agarwal managed to do some preliminary work to make education a basic human right in the real sense. He planted the concept of MOOC — massive open online courses — for edX, allowing high-quality education to be shared widely and to supplement traditional classrooms.
The MicroMasters program covers 25 to 50 percent of the material required for a typical post-graduate degree. Agarwal said some courses under the program are similar to those taught on campuses, offering similar assignments and examinations, like those he teaches at MIT.
The program, however, requires payment for credential. Most of the fees go to program providers, and credit is granted to students who pass the final examination.
The credential, recognized by many industry leaders, like PwC and Volvo, also helps learners qualify for admission to a program provider"s full master"s degree.
PolyU is the only Hong Kong tertiary educational institution among the 23 MicroMasters program providers. It offers six-month courses on international hospitality management for a fee of US$540.
Students who earn certification under the program are granted nine credits capable of proceeding to the full master"s degree program at PolyU, enabling them to save up to HK$47,000 for their courses.
The HK$30 million Agarwal receives from the Yidan Prize will be plowed into edX"s new MicroBachelors program, which is similar to the MicroMasters, but will focus on undergraduate work.
Agarwal conceived the program to help students who intend to further their bachelor"s degree studies, and those who do not want to attend university at all.
"High school students could take three to four MicroBachelors courses and convert them to credit. That way, they could shorten their time spent on studies for a bachelor"s degree, which usually takes four years.
"For those who don"t intend to go to university, if they take enough MicroBachelors courses, the program provider will grant certification of a bachelor"s degree under the relevant discipline," Agarwal explained.
He said the undergrad project has drawn attention from universities in Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland and Australia.
Working on MIT"s podium and edX platform, Agarwal offers a principle for young educators — hitch your wagon to a star. "That"s to say, try to reach for things beyond your grasp."