Education Opinion

The Making of a HarvardX Course

By Justin Reich — May 19, 2014 3 min read
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This past Sunday, the Boston Sunday Globe had a front page article going behind the scenes of the development of HarvardX courses. I thought the article did a nice job of capturing the moment at HarvardX, where faculty and staff approach the work with caution and enthusiasm.

Yet, as Harvard demonstrates, universities continue to pour enormous amounts of money and talent into creating MOOCs and building an online infrastructure. Their aim reflects pragmatic self-interest and soaring idealism -- staying competitive with peer institutions, and improving education for everyone, not just online learners in distant lands. While plenty of Harvard professors remain skeptical about the costs, value, and even ethics of the endeavor, faculty who teach MOOCs see great potential to enrich what they offer undergraduates on campus by bringing elements from the online classes into regular courses.

There were three things I liked about the article.

First, it showed the pluck and talent of our producers and team. These are folks with great production skills and deep scholarly interests. They are trying to make something beautiful, engaging, and enriching. I love the story of Zach Davis diving into an antique sewing machine to try to fix it. Everyone involved is diving into something, usually something sort of odd.

Second, it showed the ambivalence and excitement of those involved in the effort. The faculty who teach MOOCs and see potential are among the same faculty who are concerned with cost, value, and ethics. The HarvardX team has the same combination of idealism and caution; we had a staff retreat on the Friday before the article came out, where we talked very explicitly about the ways in which MOOCs could exacerbate educational inequalities. Of course, on balance, the team leans towards optimism, and so they are there under the sewing machines, trying to make them work. But nearly everyone on this project is looking carefully at the consequences.

Third, in describing a few different courses, the article shows the idiosyncracies of the enterprise. When people critique Harvard’s entrance into online learning, I sometimes read that “Harvard does this, and it does this for this reason.” There is no “Harvard,” just lots of people who tend to be quite fiercely devoted to each other’s independence. All of the professors described in the article are creating MOOCs for their own reasons, and all of these reasons are only partially aligned with one another. Some are trying to upend education as we know it, some just love their material and want it shared, some heard that people were giving away money for doctoral students if you made one of these course thingys. Everyone involved is an explorer, and--for better and for worse--not everyone is exploring the same paths.

I will say that there is one important piece of backstory that doesn’t make it into the article. The article primarily focuses on video production, and rightly so as it’s a major focus of MOOC production. But HarvardX is also undergoing a serious re-consideration of the role of videos in these courses. From the beginning of MOOCs, there has been this curious case that there are nearly always (maybe always) more people who earn a certificate in the course than watch all the videos, usually many more people who earn a certificate than watch the final few videos (I remember looking this up when 6.002x first came out from MIT). By the end of the course, people seem to be doing a lot of their learning without video.

Are they just banging their heads against problems? Are they asking friends? Are they reading transcripts? Are they looking keywords up in Wikipedia? Are the just trying to answer the problems as efficiently as possible, guessing maybe, to earn a certificate without doing any more learning? We don’t know. But the team is asking hard questions about how videos are used by learners once people get pretty deep into the course, and what other ways there might be to support the learning process.

In any event, I enjoyed this piece as a moment to capture what production looks like from behind the scenes.

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