Harvard offers free courses online


By Chrissie Long, Staff Writer

After years of cautiously watching from the sidelines, Harvard University has entered the world of online education. The 377-year-old school, which has long thrived under a banner of exclusivity, is now offering online open access classes for free.

In September, it unveiled its first two courses as part of a multi-university, not-for-profit enterprise known as edX. More than 200,000 students enrolled (696,500 registered across the edX platform); 60 percent of them logging in from places outside the United States.
Harvard was joined in the imitative by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wellesley University, University of Texas and Georgetown University; and will be adding new partners in the months to come.

“This is really an unprecedented moment for the university,” said Professor Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX. “We don’t really know how this will transform higher education. But, in my view, we have two options. We could just sit back and pull up the drawbridge [on online education] or we can leverage and indeed define what this opportunity represents.”

The platform edX is unlike existing MOOCs (an awkward acronym that stands for massive open online courses). For one, it’s not just a compilation of stagnant material such as syllabi, discussion questions and YouTube videos. The entire experience is designed to be interactive, with discussion forums, multiple-choice testing and video face-time with professors. Also, the enterprise stresses quality over quantity. Each course is carefully planned with a team of faculty members and staff. And for the time being, it’s free.

But the real differentiating factor is the mission of the initiative, Lue said. One of the central goals of edX is to improve teaching and learning on campus by supporting faculty in conducting research on pedagogy.

“Every single HarvardX project – the materials created – must re-circulate to benefit the on-campus experience – so all of the interactive tools, all of the videos, all of the formative assessments are also used on-campus,” Lue said. “In other words, the challenge is how we make sure that this continues to make the on-campus experience as valuable as ever.”

The Kennedy School is also planning to enter the online space through edX. After meeting in mid-November to discuss the initiative, faculty and staff are currently talking about which course they hope to unroll first. They hope to introduce the first class in the fall of 2013.

“I think many faculty are intrigued and excited, but are still hoping to learn more,” said Suzanne Cooper, academic dean for teaching and curriculum. “The notion that edX is focused on research about learning is obviously attractive.”

Cooper said the edX initiative would be part of a larger self-reflection exercise at the Kennedy School relating to rethinking how classes are taught. The school is currently experimenting with the idea of a ‘flipped classroom’ which moves the traditional lecture outside the class (through video, audio, etc.) and turns class time into a period for interactive problem solving with the professor serving as a guide.

“We don’t see edX as a substitute for campus-based learning,” Cooper said. “We hope that it will open opportunities for a deeper understanding of teaching and learning.”

The edX platform could serve as a way for alumni to stay connected to the Kennedy School, taking the courses they missed while on campus, and – for classes with a strong international focus – could enable students on campus to learn alongside and from peers in other countries.

But both Cooper and Lue were adamant that the new online platform would not moot campus learning; that students would not ditch their $40,000 campus education because they can take the same courses – albeit in a different format – for free.

“The idea is that we are not replacing the Harvard experience,” Lue said. “We are just providing online the best learning experience possible.

This doesn’t mean that that experience will replace what happens on campus because, no matter what, there is value to face-to-face and that will always be the case.”

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