A Course in Marketing

Small departments stand to gain from innovative marketing of courses

After years of students bringing Facebook into the classroom, Harvard courses have turned the tables and brought classes to Facebook. This semester, an academic department at Harvard paid for Facebook advertisements to sell its classes to Harvard students. The Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations bought the spots to advertise some of its language offerings, as well as three other undergraduate courses.

The move, an escalation of the already common practice of advertising for courses by putting up posters around campus and even, in some cases, making course trailers to advertise their content to students, has the potential to help boost students’ awareness of the offerings of smaller departments.

For less high-profile departments, this move has the opportunity to make students aware of options that could be excellent educational opportunities for them, even though many students might not usually trawl through the course listings of these departments.

What’s more, it can help make the smaller classes themselves more effective. Classes that are designed as lectures but wind up having only three students are damaged in similar, if opposite, ways that seminars with almost 30 students are. Even a seminar or language section, if under-enrolled, is improved by the addition of a few extra students. Departments should make every reasonable effort, including paid advertisement if necessary, to ensure that course enrollments reflect their quality of teaching.

This heightened awareness could, in turn, help larger departments as well. Very often, students make their choices for classes based on limited information about offerings and what their friends are taking. As such, large classes get larger (and more often lotteried) as more people have friends who have taken or are taking them. Small classes, on the other hand, are more and more left to the comparatively small group of people involved with their respective departments.

It makes sense that Facebook should be the next medium through which Harvard professors sell their courses to students, considering the fact that such a large portion of the student body does their shopping through the site now, either informally asking friends for recommendations or perusing Courses.CS50, which can be tied to a students Facebook profile. Such an advertising tactic seems more likely to be successful than the traditional methods, which rely on students remembering the poster they saw outside the Science Center when choosing courses.

Of course, this sort of advertising is not for everyone. Courses that expect to be lotteried or that are already very well known would be better off not advertising and instead limiting themselves solely to the students who most want to participate in them. However, for the smaller departments on campus this kind of move makes a lot of sense, and we hope to see more of them giving it a shot.

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