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Faculty Enthusiastic About Harvard's Move to Online Education

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

In what is nearly a biannual rite of passage, Harvard undergraduates­—nearly one thousand of them—flock to Sanders Theatre to attend “Justice,” a course taught by government professor Michael J. Sandel every other year that challenges students to consider difficult moral dilemmas.

But even with the lofty enrollment figures, Harvard students make up only a small portion of people engaged in the course. In the five years since the course became publicly available online, millions of viewers from around the world have “taken” Sandel’s course, according to the course’s website. Virtual students have the opportunity to watch all of Sandel’s lectures and post their thoughts on discussion forums.

Now, as a result of the Harvard-MIT partnership announced last Wednesday, ”Justice” will be just one of many Harvard courses open to the general public online.

Harvard and MIT have each pledged to spend $30 million to establish a joint online platform called edX, which will offer lecture videos, class exercises, and quizzes. Building off of MIT’s open courseware platform MITx, the jointly run online education network will eventually incorporate instructional offerings from many universities, administrators hope.

Soon, undergraduates at both colleges will not be the only ones listening to lectures and chugging through problem sets.

Faculty response to the announcement has been largely positive, with professors across a wide range of disciplines citing not only increased public access but also on-campus advantages and applications of edX.

“By opening access to the Harvard classroom, we not only share our resources with others, we also enrich the learning that takes place here at Harvard,” Sandel wrote in an e-mail.

“Being very inclusive of the rest of the people in the world who want to learn, I think, is a very admirable and very good thing to do,” said Ali Khademhosseini, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and affiliate of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

Professors also agreed that in addition to opening up Harvard and MIT’s resources, data collected from edX has the potential to significantly improve the classroom experience of students on campus.

“The problem with online education as a whole is that it hasn’t been interactive, just a source of information,” Khademhosseini said. But edX could change that, he continued.

David J. Malan ’99, who teaches the popular introductory computer science course CS50, added that while Harvard has yet to decide which courses to offer through edX, he would be very open to including CS50 on the class list.

CS50 has posted lectures online for five years now, but Malan acknowledged that a platform like edX—with its research potential and broad reach—would significantly expand his course’s potential to “leverage the internet and web-based tools.”

Data from edX could tell professors which lecture formats and exercises are most effectively communicated online, allowing faculty to cover basic material more efficiently and reserve classroom time for question and answer sessions or interactive activities.

“Merely listening to someone like me lecture for 60 to 90 minutes cannot possibly be the most effective way to learn and absorb complex material,” Malan said. “We would love to be part of something like this.”

Professors agreed that re-thinking the format in which learning takes place—in all disciplines—must be a key part of the new initiative.

“The humanities in general have been taught in a relatively traditional format—the lecture hall, or the seminar room,” said Martin Puchner, professor of drama and English and comparative literature. “It’s gotten good at it, but there are new opportunities provided by different types of technologies.”

EdX is an evolving platform, and students may have a chance to contribute feedback and classroom modules as early as the fall, according to Malan.

Although many people view Harvard’s exclusivity as one of its defining features, professors say that increased accessibility of Harvard’s educational offerings to the broader community will not diminish the University’s prestige.

Puchner said that much of the “residential, liberal arts college” experience cannot be duplicated simply by putting classes online. Daily interactions among students and between students and their instructors, he said, are incredibly important as well.

“I don’t think the online courses will dilute the brand,” Puchner said. “I think it will make Harvard College even more desirable than it already is.”

While some professors feel strongly that edX will supplement, rather than displace, tradition learning models, Khademhosseini said that he can imagine a future in which online portals provide an education that is on par in terms of quality with in-person classes at universities.

“I think it’s not impossible,” he said. “I think the trend is going that way.”

—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.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: May 8

An earlier version of this article stated that more than 15,000 students around the world have taken Michael Sandel’s course “Justice” online. In fact, more than 15,000 students have taken the class at Harvard, while millions around the world have watched the course lectures online.

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Higher EducationAcademicsFacultyTechnologyMITedX