edX’s founder believes AI will be a game changer in education—if it’s done right. Here’s what he thinks about the future of learning

BY Preston ForeSeptember 19, 2023, 7:23 PM
Photo of Anant Agarwal, edX founder, over a light green plaid background.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Original photo courtesy of Anant Agarwal

Earlier this year, Anant Agarwal—founder of edX—was equally excited and terrified about the rise in popularity of generative AI tools like ChatGPT.

“I could think of doomsday scenarios,” he tells Fortune. “But I could think of incredibly uplifting scenarios.”

In fact, earlier this year, a survey by Reuters showed that over half of Americans believe AI poses a risk to humanity. 

But after working with AI and studying its opportunities, Agarwal is now optimistic. 

“I’ve become a firm believer that this is going to be very beneficial for us in education. But we have to do it right,” he says. 

As now the chief platform officer at edX’s parent company, 2U, and also having been a professor at MIT for over 35 years, Agarwal is well familiar with how technology can revolutionize education.

Leveraging ChatGPT to your advantage

The closest analogy to AI’s rapid rise that Agarwal can recall is the accelerated use and advancement of calculators in the classroom.

The devices were embraced and are now ubiquitous in most learning environments—but with guard rails. For example, it may be expected that every student can use a calculator to solve simple equations, but the use of complicated graphing calculators may be prohibited. 

“I think the same thing is happening with AI, where my thinking is that we need to embrace AI. And we need to set your expectations…” Agarwal tells Fortune. “My strong view is that much like the calculator democratized numeracy, I believe ChatGPT is democratizing writing literacy.”

Very soon, instead of writing everything from scratch, Agarwal predicts we may soon use templates or drafts created by generative AI and then cater the content to what we need.

“I have trouble starting writing, so I love getting a draft from ChatGPT,” he says. “And then I hammer it out and personalize it and make it sound like an Indian accent and Anant Agarwal.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, with AI comes “powerful opportunities” to address priorities in educational policy, like its creation of new forms of interactivity, adaptivity, and variability in student learning.

Teachers are also using generative AI to help form lesson plans, create practice problems, and assist in teaching. 

But regardless, Agarwal notes teachers should set expectations with their students on the extent of AI use—while also teaching them how to effectively leverage it for learning.

Upskilling by 2025

As the world of tech continues to evolve practically on a daily basis, so does the need for learning. But, Agarwal says this goes beyond just people in the tech industry. 

“Everybody will be using AI in their jobs,” Agarwal says. “There is no question about that. And so you need to learn and get upskilled to learn and upskill in how AI will help you do your current job better.” 

The World Economic Forum predicts that half of the global workforce may need to upskill or reskill by 2025. 1.1 billion jobs may be “radically transformed” by technology over the next decade, the organization adds.  

And according to a new survey by edX, nearly 4 out of 5 of executives fear that if they don’t learn how to use AI, they’ll be unprepared for the future of work. 

Agarwal says this new training has two sides: for those in tech, figuring out how to build AI tools and technologies, and then for others, utilizing AI to perform jobs better.

edX hosts a number of online AI trainings on topics like ChatGPT and prompt engineering. It also is partnered with UT-Austin and offers an online master’s degree program in AI.

This is all good news for workers. According to the same edX survey, a majority of executives think workers with AI skills should be paid more and promoted more often.

“I firmly believe that jobs are going to be transformed, but we’re not going to lose jobs because of AI. But while I might not lose my job to AI, I might certainly lose it to somebody else that is able to use AI better than I can,” Agarwal says.