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An $800 million acquisition deal was once the sign of prosperous times in the online education space.

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The acquisition of edX, a banner deal three years ago in the online education space, has morphed into a potentially last-of-its-kind move in the evolving OPM industry.

Online education provider 2U acquired nonprofit learning platform edX in 2021, paying $800 million to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two universities created the nonprofit in 2012.

“[EdX] was meant to be a real effort to jump-start online education to make the best classes in the world available for free,” said Steven Mintz, a history professor at University of Texas at Austin and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed. The university was one of the founding partners of the edX consortium.

“This was part of a real democratic vision of what higher education could be and how it could extend opportunities globally,” he said.

The acquisition initially posed a threat to Coursera, a behemoth in the online education space. But Coursera has held steady, reporting 2023 revenue up 21 percent over the previous year.

Coursera's success, in large part, has come from having a variety of offerings and lower cost, said Dhawal Shah, an analyst in the online education space and founder of Class Central. Coursera also shifted from a sole focus on universities to company-branded certificates, like partnering with Google on an IT certificate.

“EdX is a smaller platform; 2U is more expensive [than Coursera] and you can’t just funnel students to online boot camps or online degrees,” Shah said. “If the results didn’t work out [with edX], 2U would be in a bit of trouble—which they are now.”

In a quarterly filing last month, 2U noted serious financial concerns after ending 2023 with more than $900 million in debt. However, the company also had $73 million in cash, which some familiar with 2U say is more than enough to continue.

“Nothing about the going concern inhibits our ability to maintain operations,” Andrew Hermalyn, president of 2U’s degree program segment, said in a previous interview with Inside Higher Ed. “We are engaged in constructive discussions with our lenders to reach a resolution regarding our capital structure, and importantly, we have sufficient time and liquidity to do so.”

Beyond 2U, there are larger questions about the future of the online program managing space, with idealists believing edX had the keys to broaden education to the masses.

“What we need is a way to extend Harvard’s reach that is not only inexpensive and legal, but that also benefits more than just the lucky few thousand our campus can house,” wrote Harvard student Chanden Climaco in the university’s student paper, The Harvard Crimson. “Sounds like a pipe dream. It’s not. In fact, the solution already existed [with] edX.”

2U promised to keep a free track for auditing courses for five years. That was three years ago. A 2U spokesperson said the company plans to “continue providing free course options as part of our long-term strategy” once the five years is up.

Many institutions joined edX before it was acquired, including UT Austin and the University of California, Berkeley.

However, MIT and Harvard used the earnings from the edX sale to launch Axim Collaborative. That nonprofit collaborative uses a free, open-access platform called Open edX, which powers online learning courses “with the aim of making education accessible to everyone, everywhere,” according to an Axim spokesperson.

Since the 2013 launch of Open edX, which is a different organization than the edX purchased by 2U, more than 70,000 courses were made available to the 77 million users amassed.

Whether or not the OPM space is dying depends on whom you ask, but there has been a slowdown of players in the space. Many have been acquired, with the large players growing even larger. That includes the rebranding and subsequent layoffs at Pearson Online Learning Services, now known as Boundless Learning. Meanwhile, Noodle, also a player in the industry, is distancing itself from the OPM label. Academic Partnerships announced in November it was acquiring Wiley’s online education business in a $150 million deal.

The 2U and edX deals may have been one of the last considerable deals in the space.

“I think the pandemic was the time [to see change],” Shah said. “If any new players had to arise, that was their opportunity. Instead, the big players got bigger. Some got acquired. Some went private, some went public. Even the AI hype has been here for a year and we haven’t seen any new players come out.”

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