The Harvard Classroom, Digitized

The Harvard Classroom, Digitized
Caroline T. Zhang

Each fall for the past four years, hundreds of undergraduates have vied for a seat in a Science Center lecture hall for the perennially popular course, Science of the Physical Universe 27: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.” Some students are food enthusiasts eager to sample the cooking of famous chefs or learn the science behind their favorite recipes, while others come looking to fulfill one of their science General Education requirements.

But enrollees in this year’s version of the course were exposed to more than just the cooking demonstrations and problem sets they were expecting. This fall, course instructors debuted a new set of online course materials, including pre-recorded lecture videos and comprehension questions derived from SPU27x, the online equivalent of “Science and Cooking.” This virtual version of the course, open to anyone with an internet connection, is hosted on HarvardX, the subset of Harvard and MIT’s virtual education platform edX devoted to online courses taught by Harvard faculty.

While SPU27x has seen the highest enrollment of any HarvardX course offered this fall, reaction to this year’s on-campus course has been mixed. Halfway through the semester, some students have already dropped the class, saying they find the virtual course materials to be disappointing.

When I finally got lotteried in, I was really excited about it, but this edX component turned me off,” said Denise Acosta ’15, who dropped “Science and Cooking” after the second week.

“Science and Cooking” is one of several courses that have been restructured this year with the help of online pedagogical tools, and given that faculty leaders of HarvardX have repeatedly emphasized their goal of enriching the classroom experience, this year’s set of virtually enhanced courses is likely to be just the start of a gradual process of greater experimentation in Harvard classrooms.

Although HarvardX’s proponents claim that virtual education has the potential to transform the traditional lecture format, the process of bringing HarvardX to the brick-and-mortar classroom is still in its very early stages. This semester, the third since Harvard and MIT announced the launch of edX, many students are questioning whether these new models of instruction are enhancing—or detracting from—the learning process.


This year’s version of “Science and Cooking” is being taught as a “flipped classroom”: a teaching style in which online materials deliver instruction that would have otherwise been covered during class time. Several other Gen EdsCulture and Belief 22: “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization,” History of Science 121: “The Einstein Revolution,” and Societies of the World 12: “China”—are also experimenting with the flipped classroom format for the first time.

Although the flipped classroom model often requires students to spend extra time on course material, faculty members say that the new structure is intended to enrich the learning experience. “On principle, it’s not my view to add work,” said applied physics professor Michael P. Brenner, who co-teaches “Science and Cooking.” “We should be enhancing the class.”

Mary E. Wahl, head teaching fellow of “Science and Cooking,” said that having students watch lectures videos outside of class allows course staff to utilize Thursday lectures as a recitation section to go through sample calculations for weekly problem sets.

Similarly, University Professor Peter L. Galison, who teaches “The Einstein Revolution,” said that assigning online videos for homework allows him utilize lectures in a more interactive way. Students in his class currently sit in groups of six to facilitate weekly discussions during class time.

For his part, classics professor Gregory J. Nagy said that while online components in “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization” demand greater work from students, they benefit both his work as a teacher and his students’ work as writers.

“I’m getting much more thinking and much more incisive writing from my students, even if some of them would say it’s adding extra work, but I think that middle step where we use [the HarvardX platform] is a real enhancement to the quality of the essays than Harvard students get the chance to write,” Nagy said.


Nevertheless, many students have claimed that new online course components add little to their mastery of course material and sometimes bear minimal relation to material covered in the classroom.