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HarvardX Set To Launch Second SPOC

By Amna H. Hashmi, Crimson Staff Writer

Every fall, fewer than 40 students gain admission to the popular Harvard Kennedy School course Government 1796: “Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press: An Introduction.”

When on October 1 the Kennedy School launches HKS211.1x, the virtual version of the class and the school’s first ever HarvardX offering, the number of students in one semester able to earn some form of credit for the course will increase tenfold.

The course will be the second SPOC—small, private, online course—on HarvardX, the Harvard subset of the larger edX initiative, after HLS1x: “Copyright.” Like HLS1x, HKS211.1x will have a 500-participant cap.

The limit on enrollment makes the HarvardX course unlike most virtual classes, which are normally open to all and referred to as MOOCs—massive, open, online courses. Those who are admitted into HKS211.1x will be expected to complete weekly assignments and join discussion groups, with the potential to ultimately earn a Certificate of Mastery. Other edX users will be able to audit the course to explore the material for no academic credit.

The class is taught by Kennedy School professor Graham T. Allison '62 and David E. Sanger '82, a senior writer for the New York Times and former Crimson editor who took an earlier version of the course from Allison when he himself was a Kennedy School student.

“The reason why it is called ‘X,’ and it is a big ‘X’ in our case, is because this is an experiment. We are learning,” said Allison.

In particular, Allison said that he hopes the SPOC model will help combat the “highly discouraging” retention rates of MOOCs, which he estimated at around 10 percent. The application process, he said, will filter casual browsers from the students who are willing to make a bigger commitment.

Applications for the HarvardX course are due this coming Friday. If the number of applicants surpasses the 500 mark, the course team will apply some criteria and judge if the participant is prepared to write and perform strategic analysis in order to narrow down the pool, Sanger said.

“We have worried about the selection process. Our feeling is that when people have to actually look at the application, they will realize that the task requires several hours of reading and preparation. That will probably dampen the enthusiasm for those who are not serious in the first place,” said Allison.

According to Allison, the number of students every fall who express interest in taking Government 1796 frequently exceeds the class’s capacity. This past shopping period, approximately 100 Harvard undergraduates applied to win fewer than 10 spots.

“There was a huge demand, and we were hoping to make parts of it more widely available,” said Allison.

In an email to students who were not accepted to Government 1796, course assistant Jessica D. Blankshain wrote, “If you elect not to stay on the waitlist, or if the class remains full, I would encourage you to apply again next year if you will still be Harvard, or to consider the online version of the course.”

If 25 or more online participants were actually on Harvard’s campus, Allison said the course’s staff would try to facilitate an in-person section.

Frank G. Davis ’16, a College student who was put on the class’s waitlist and did not pursue the online alternative, said that for him, pure academic interest did not justify the time commitment required to complete the assignments.

“I wanted to take part in the course and learn the material, but if I was not getting any credit for it, I could not devote that time,” said Davis.

Davis, who received his lottery results 30 minutes after study cards were due, said that he was frustrated by the course’s enrollment cap for College students.

“If they have [the course] open to undergraduates, they should accommodate that a little better, or at least have more than six spots available,” said Davis.

Gregory C. Dunn ’16, a student also put on the waitlist who said he will apply again next year, said that the online course could stand as a reasonable alternative for some.

“I know that the staff behind it are extraordinarily talented. It will be a great opportunity for many people,” said Dunn.

Other universities in the edX consortium beyond just Harvard have begun experimenting with SPOCs. Armando Fox, an adjunct associate computer science professor at UC Berkeley who named himself as the first person to coin the SPOC term, said that the online version of his class CS169x: “Software as a Service,” arose from enormous interest in the on-campus version of the course.

“We had created the MOOC initially really as an experiment, because in our own campus course, we already had begun thinking about sophisticated online grading because of enrollment pressure,” said Fox.

Fox then created a separate online course open exclusively to UC Berkeley students.

“We realized that in order for this to serve as supplementary material for our on-campus students, those students would have different deadlines and grading policies. We accidentally discovered the situation,” Fox added.

At the end of the course, Fox said, student comments suggested that the MOOC material served as a positive enhancement, giving the course its highest rating in its 20-year history at Berkeley.

Two other courses at Berkeley, CS191x: “Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation” and CS188x: “Artificial Intelligence,” are also offered as SPOCs exclusively for Berkeley students.

As Academic Director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education, Fox said that current efforts to create MOOCs or SPOCs are prioritized for already existing campus courses that either face over-enrollment or would benefit from incorporating the type of material that can be uploaded online.

“This is really about SPOCs. The MOOC is almost a side effect,” Fox said. “Institutionally, we want to make sure we are doing this because we believe it can improve student and faculty engagement on our own campus. That’s our primary goal.”

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

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