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Faculty Debate Impact of edX

By Radhika Jain and Kevin J. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

In less than a week, two more institutions of higher education—Wellesley College and Georgetown University—have partnered with edX, the rapidly growing online educational venture started by Harvard and MIT last May. But six months after the launch, Harvard faculty continue to express a spectrum of opinions on whether HarvardX—the subset of edX courses offered by Harvard—will enhance or detract from on-campus instruction.

The issue was discussed at length last Tuesday at the Faculty meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, sparking vigorous discussion about how edX aligns with Harvard’s educational goals.

Some faculty expressed concerns that an aggressive pursuit of online education might redirect Harvard’s attention from on-campus learning and dilute Harvard’s brand.

“Will the outcome of this be less HarvardX than ex-Harvard?” English Department Chair W. James Simpson asked at the meeting.

Simpson also brought up questions about the evaluation and accreditation of hundreds of thousands of students.

In an interview after the meeting, FAS Dean Michael D. Smith said that maintaining Harvard’s educational standards in the virtual realm is a top priority for HarvardX leaders.

History professor Charles S. Maier ’60 questioned whether edX could replicate the experience of a small seminar.

“The teaching experience I enjoy most is sitting around a table with 15 students, maybe a few more or less, and working through a problem,” he said. “Do we forswear this experience entirely with this type of project and, if not, how do we organize it?”

For some professors, the large scope of edX and the absence of in-person interactions runs counter to what they see as Harvard’s pedagogical priorities.

“Ever since I’ve been here, the effort has been to have more small group instruction,” German professor Peter J. Burgard said.

HarvardX Faculty Director Robert A. Lue said that Harvard wants to connect its virtual presence with classroom instruction, but recognizes that HarvardX will never be a replacement for the on-campus experience.

Harvard’s cohort of edX leaders emphasized that above all, edX is an experiment meant to navigate Harvard’s virtual presence in a world in which students are coming into college more experienced with technologically-driven education.

Self-evaluative assessments, personalized feedback mechanisms, and structured online discussions have been proposed as just a few of the ways online education could supplement on-campus learning.

Administrators also highlighted the ways HarvardX has already touched global communities.

“When I was in India last year, I met with a number of officials who described some of the many challenges that they are confronted with in the area of public health, and particularly in terms of training and education,” University President Drew G. Faust told the Crimson. “Now we have 9,000 people from India alone taking the public health course that is among our very first offerings on edX.”

As faculty members debate the broader pedagogical impact of edX, many of them are already taking advantage of the innovative opportunities the platform presents.

Harvard expects to put up four new courses next year, in addition to a number of shorter “modules” of content that cover only a few weeks of material, according to Lue.

Lue also said that a number of professors have already started creating courses and modules that span a range of disciplines, from music to interpersonal relationships to history.

He was careful to distinguish the edX model from that of other massive open online course platforms, such as Coursera, which was created this April by two Stanford professors.

“Coursera seems to be exclusively about large numbers, a single mode of learning—as many courses as possible,” Lue said. “HarvardX is about quality, impact, and pushing the impact of how we use technology to learn.”

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

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