HarvardX for Alumni Drew High Enrollment, Mixed Reviews

HarvardX for Alumni, a program that offers online course content specifically to University alumni, drew 25,000 registrants in its first iteration last March, thousands more than initially expected, but received mixed responses from those who enrolled.

The initiative is a partnership between the Harvard Alumni Association and HarvardX, the University’s branch of the online learning platform edX. Philip W. Lovejoy, executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association, said that he anticipated only a few thousand to enroll when the program began last spring.

“When we launched the program, I was sort of thinking that if we had ten thousand registrants, we’d do really well,” said Lovejoy. “We actually ended up at close to 25,000 alumni, including their guests.”

Lovejoy said that he considered the registration number extraordinarily successful in comparison to other alumni programs, adding that he could not think of a single other program for Harvard alumni with the same level of participation.

Despite the high number of registrations, alumni responses to the quality of the program were mixed.

Robert A. Lue, faculty director of HarvardX who first conceived of the alumni-specific program, said that reviews were split half and half between those who enjoyed the course and those who did not. For instance, some participants wanted more from the modular content, which combined smaller segments from a variety of courses rather than representing a single course.

“Our alumni had a diversity of what they were hoping for from the experience,” Lue said. “I think what some of them didn’t realize is that you can go and take the full course if you wanted to,” he said, referring to HarvardX course offerings on edX, an open courseware venture first founded by Harvard and MIT in May 2012.

Lovejoy said that the complexity of registration might also have contributed to negative reviews. Users first had to register through a Harvard alumni community portal and then complete a separate edX registration, he said. According to Lovejoy, slightly more than 10,000 people finally registered and activated their enrollment on edX, less than half of the initial 25,000 who registered on the University’s alumni website.

In addition, some alumni found the edX platform challenging to navigate, Lue said.

“We spent more time than expected helping our alumni figure out how to take a course online,” Lue said. “Not only do they have a variety of aspirations, [the alumni] have a variety of levels of comfort and experience with using the internet.”

Despite technical issues, Lovejoy said that alumni reported in post-program surveys that they gained a better understanding of the edX and HarvardX experience and felt more connected to Harvard. In that sense, the opportunity for alumni to hear from faculty firsthand about how online learning can transform teaching in the classroom made the program a very successful experience, he added.

According to Lue, HarvardX and HAA are collaborating on the next iteration of HarvardX for Alumni. That process will include both the planning of a new set of modular courseware as well as a strategy to reconcile the diverse interests of those who prefer the modular format with those who want a full course.

Lue said that he also hopes future iterations of HarvardX for Alumni can continue to reconnect the University and its graduates in new ways. 

“The goal is to connect not just with Harvard content, but with Harvard,” Lue said.

—Staff writer Hannah Smati can be reached at hannah.smati@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @HannahSmati.

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