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HarvardX to Offer New Premium Online Courses

Harvard has unveiled a new addition to its HarvardX virtual education platform, which will for the first time charge between about $200 and $500 for enrollment in online courses, signaling a move towards more financially sustainable online learning models.

Starting in September, the paid program, HarvardXPlus, will offer four eight-week courses, a departure from HarvardX’s current online course offerings, which are open to auditors—people who can view lectures and materials online but do not receive course credit—for free.

HarvardXPlus promises students expanded content and more intimate contact with peers, teaching fellows, and faculty. In addition, the program will also provide those who complete the course with a “branded credential,” a two-page document that describes in detail the the learning objectives, outcomes, and skills acquired during the course. Enrollment will be capped in the hundreds, as opposed to tens of thousands who enroll in HarvardX courses.

Three of the courses—biochemistry, business contracts, and world literature—come with a $495 price tag. The final course, ChinaX Book Club, costs $195.

While HarvardXPlus is the first program in HarvardX to require a fee for enrollment, HarvardX allows participants to purchase a verified certificates in otherwise free courses. These certificates typically cost between $50 and $150.

HarvardX
HarvardX is the Harvard-specific branch of online platform EdX, which offers courses free of charge to students across the globe.

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Faculty director of HarvardX Robert A. Lue said that charging a fee will provide financial incentive to finish the course. According to a recent report, 5 percent of non-paying HarvardX participants completed the course, while those who paid for certification had around a 59 percent completion rate. Lue said he hopes these courses will have a more committed cohort of participants.

“We are able to bring together a community that is hard to bring together physically. [HarvardXPlus] is a limited enrollment group which is from all around the world. It’s an opportunity to have a conversation that is so diverse and so different, but they’re all committed to an intimate, intensive experience,” Lue said.

The move to a paid addition to HarvardX’s entirely free online catalogue symbolizes a slight departure from the norm of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are open to auditors for free.

“I think it’s important not to look at it as Harvard turning its back on MOOCs. It’s looking at it as a new learning opportunity which will provide additional value but will cost a little more than traditional MOOCs,” said Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois.

In 2012 Harvard and MIT unveiled edX, an online learning hub that hosts the HarvardX platform. The move was in part why 2012 was dubbed “the year of the MOOC” and many felt that edX had the capacity to revolutionize education. In the years since, over 50 other universities have signed on to create classes for edX.

However, the online education platform has not been without its issues. HarvardX has yet to take hold as an integral part of Harvard’s on-campus learning environment. The fiscal sustainability of the program has also come under question.

Lue said he hopes the additional revenue from HarvardXPlus will contribute to the sustainability of HarvardX and defray some of the costs of producing the online materials. Still, Lue stressed that the premium model was something that has always been planned and that it likely would have come to fruition regardless of the added benefit of additional revenue.

“Like a lot of things in sustainability, there are a lot of things which go into it. It’s a portfolio approach. Do I think this will be part of the portfolio? I hope so,” said Lue.

Lue emphasized that HarvardXPlus is “experimental,” and more premium courses are currently in the works. According to Lue, HarvardX will evaluate the first iteration of the program after the courses are completed this fall.

“Ultimately the world of online learning is moving so fast so we are still learning what we can do,” Lue said.

—Staff writer Theo C. Lebryk can be reached at theo.lebryk@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @theo_lebryk.

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