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Looking In by Looking Out

Trying to broaden its international reach, Harvard is a university grappling with the paradoxical challenge of creating a global presence without leaving a global footprint.

With Harvard on the brink of launching a capital campaign unprecedented in size, it seems to have determined that in order to strengthen Harvard's physical campus, it should look out.
With Harvard on the brink of launching a capital campaign unprecedented in size, it seems to have determined that in order to strengthen Harvard's physical campus, it should look out.
By Amna H. Hashmi and Cynthia W. Shih, Crimson Staff Writers

“The largest intellectual footprint with the smallest physical footprint” has been the mantra directing Harvard’s approach to international strategy in an increasingly global world.

Repeated verbatim by administrators ranging from University President Drew G. Faust to Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria, the assertion that Harvard should foster a global presence without laying down bricks has guided such decisions as the University’s choice not to construct a second campus in another country, as some of its peer institutions have already done.

But while Harvard has avoided building something in the style of Yale-National University of Singapore College, fostering an international presence has remained a priority. In her email to faculty outlining seven principles that will guide the upcoming capital campaign, Faust listed the idea that “[k]nowledge and learning are increasingly global” and international strategy as areas sure to be emphasized when soliciting donations.

Faust has said that edX, the virtual education platform that Harvard launched jointly with MIT about one year ago, will also be included in the campaign’s priorities. With approximately 900,000 unique users, 72 percent of whom are from outside the United States, edX epitomizes the globalization of knowledge.

As Harvard embarks on a capital campaign unprecedented in scope, global priorities might seem to focus on bettering the world—but faculty and administrators say they will ultimately improve research and pedagogy back home at Harvard. To look inward and improve its Cambridge campus, the University has determined that it must first look out, beyond the confines of its physical presence.


EdX was always intended to bring college courses, free of charge, to any person with a computer and internet access, but it has become even more global as it has grown.

Over the past year, the platform has rapidly expanded from its Cambridge-based founders to include 27 total institutional partners across four continents. Individuals from nearly 200 countries have registered for edX courses. At Harvard, East Asian Languages and Civilizations professor Peter K. Bol created a new course, Chinese History 185: “Creating ChinaX—Teaching China’s History Online,” devoted to developing modules for ChinaX, a course that will be offered through HarvardX—Harvard’s segment of edX—next fall.

But unlike other online education platforms, edX lists among its goals a commitment to gathering research and information on the ways in which students learn. Those involved in the initiative hope that the data they gather might soon be channeled towards improving pedagogy and learning within the physical classroom.

Only one year in, administrators say it may be too early to see what such research could mean for the bricks and mortar university, but they remain optimistic that any impact will be significant.

“To improve education on our campuses, we have to research. To do this research, we need a lot of data. We are viewing edX as a particle accelerator for learning,” said edX President Anant Agarwal. “We’re all doing research on this big data, which informs us of how students learn and how we can improve student learning on campus.”

In the course he constructed for MITx, Agarwal separated virtual learners into two groups—one that watched lectures in which the professor’s hand was not visible as he wrote, and one that viewed lectures in which it was. Although there was statistically no significant difference between the groups in terms of completion rate or grades, the latter group gave the course and the lectures better overall ratings.

Professors interviewed for this article said that edX’s impact on the classroom will come from more than just its research capabilities.

Robert Lue, chair of the HarvardX Faculty Committee, said HarvardX might be used to fulfill prerequisites, allowing students from many backgrounds to attain the skills necessary to take certain Harvard courses. Professors have also discussed the possibility of integrating HarvardX material into the structure of their Harvard courses.

Computer science lecturer David J. Malan ’99 said that he has already benefited from implementing a virtual version of his popular course Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.” Translating CS50 into an edX course was the impetus behind the creation of CS50 Check, an auto-grading framework that was used this past year both on Harvard’s campus and in the virtual version of the class, CS50x. CS50 Check allowed edX and Harvard students to judge the correctness of their problem sets before making a final submission.

“We want to make sure that the resources and the structure that connects all of the innovations that are made in HarvardX, the support of those innovations, are adequately supported in a way that both leverages and feeds back into the existing systems here at Harvard,” Lue said.


While edX is working to bring Harvard to the world, Harvard affiliates are going abroad and bringing their experiences back home.

Harvard may have avoided creating a second campus outside of Cambridge, but it has put down roots in nine countries globally through its schools and research centers. Harvard Business School alone has constructed, since 1996, centers for research in Argentina, China, France, India, and Japan.

Jorge I. Dominguez, a government professor and Harvard’s vice provost for international affairs, described these research centers as essential in part because of their ability to ensure that Harvard affiliates have a global perspective. These sites, he said, “advance the research of faculty and in a number of instances of students.”

The “Harvard Worldwide” website, launched in 2008, lists a slew of Harvard professors who conduct their research internationally, for example. Graduate School of Education professor Fernando M. Reimers has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi to research programs that educate individuals about entrepreneurial skills like management and teamwork. He brings the findings from his travels back to Harvard, where he teaches an Education School class on entrepreneurial education.

In an email, Reimers praised Harvard’s approach to international initiatives thus far for “invit[ing] all of us in this university, where many global initiatives already exist, to become intentionally global.”

Students are also finding ways to have global experiences. According to Dominguez, half of undergraduates leave the College with significant international experience. Under the Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development program, created in 2011, all first-year Business School students must travel to a country with an emerging market. The School of Public Health has partnered with the government of Botswana since 1996, sending Harvard affiliates abroad to research the spread of AIDS in the country.

Those who have traveled internationally generally say they enjoy their experiences and bring a more global perspective back to Harvard’s campus thanks to their travels. Their time abroad aligns with the mission outlined in a letter Faust wrote in the September-October 2012 issue of Harvard Magazine, in which she laid out Harvard’s approach to international issues and its commitment to creating a student body aware of its “global context.”

“Harvard will become more intentionally global in the years to come, uniting and leveraging its extraordinary intellectual and programmatic strengths to ensure that our teaching and research have the optimal potential to make a positive difference,” Faust wrote. “What we do next will have an impact not just on the University’s future, but on the world’s future, a future in which knowledge and education will play an ever more important role.”

—Staff writer Amna H. Hashmi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amna_hashmi.

—Staff writer Cynthia W. Shih can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @CShih7.

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