Harvard Admissions Office Considers How To Weigh MOOCs

UPDATED: April 16, 2015, at 2:51 a.m.

Among the familiar sea of acronyms surrounding college admissions―AP, IB, SAT, ACT―a new credential is popping up on applications that Harvard's Admissions Office has not yet decided how heavily to weigh: the MOOC, or massive open online course.

Through HarvardX, the University’s subset of the online learning platform edX, anyone with an internet connection can enroll in virtual courses taught by Harvard faculty on topics ranging from computer science to global health to American poetry. But according to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, admissions officers are still trying to figure out how to weigh edX courses against more conventional classes, like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, on applicants’ transcripts.

Dean Fitzsimmons Discusses Class of 2019 Regular Admissions
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with [students taking edX courses] yet, but it’s one factor among many,” Fitzsimmons said. “Before you start to weigh things heavily in the admissions process, they need to be tested out to see whether there’s actually an effect on student performance [in college].”


Still, Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia who now runs a college consulting business, said he encourages his students to enroll in MOOCs as preparation for the large lecture classes that they might encounter in college.

Muth himself enrolled in a HarvardX course on the ancient Greek hero, but said that he fits the typical profile of MOOC learners―according to a post on the edX blog, 66 percent of edX users already have advanced degrees.

Muth said he believes that fewer high school students enroll in edX courses because, unlike AP and IB courses, they do not reward students with college credit for completion. Muth believes it is unlikely that edX courses will be offered for such credit in the future.

“If people could earn credit for MOOCs, many would earn at least a year or two of credit and stop paying tuition to attend schools for four years,” he said. “If instead of taking APs and paying hundreds of dollars to sit the exam, students could take MOOCs instead, then the College Board would lose millions of dollars.”

Anna Ivey, founder of the college admissions consulting firm Ivey Consulting, agreed that edX classes will not be “substituting graded classes any time soon.” However, she added that taking online courses can demonstrate interest and aptitude in a particular discipline.

“If you aren’t at a fancy high school offering lots of high-level coursework, it really is a wonderful alternative for people to have access to rigor in the difficulty of the content that they might not have at their conventional schools,” she said. “There’s certainly no real downside, aside from that students have limited time and bandwidth.”

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.