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Under Bacow, Possibilities for Growth in DCE and edX

Anant Agarwal, an MIT computer science professor, has served as CEO of edX since its establishment in 2012.
Anant Agarwal, an MIT computer science professor, has served as CEO of edX since its establishment in 2012.
By Anna M. Kuritzkes and Cindy H. Zhang, Crimson Staff Writers

University President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow said he is interested in creating more opportunities for underresourced communities to access Harvard and its teaching at a press conference on Sunday.

Bacow mentioned the issue in response to a question from the University-run Harvard Gazette about “the role universities can play in a national political environment.”

“Institutions including Harvard need to pay more attention to those in this country who’ve been left behind,” Bacow said.

To achieve this goal, Bacow may choose to leverage the University’s online learning platforms, which include courses hosted through the Division of Continuing Education and edX.

In 2015, Bacow wrote a paper on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which provide remote learners the opportunity to take college-level courses. Bacow and a co-author wrote that online course technology could increase “the availability of exceptionally good education to more of those who can benefit from it” at low marginal costs for universities.

Faculty and administrators at the Division of Continuing Education and edX praised Bacow for his interest in their work.

“Harvard has already been incredibly supportive of what we do, and it is very exciting that Larry has shown such interest,” Anant Agarwal, edX CEO and an MIT professor, said.

Huntington D. Lambert, dean of the Division of Continuing Education, said DCE has studied using online mediums to expand access as early as the '90s, when the division first began experimenting with online course technology. Of the roughly 12,000 total students currently taking courses at the Extension School, 65 percent are taking courses online.

“All of our courses are open access,” Lambert said. “It’s part of the mission to let students come in and try and learn and take a single course without going through an admissions process.”

Lambert said, at DCE, expansion into these communities is his “priority.” One of the ways DCE has been experimenting with broadening its student body is through offering a selection of inexpensive, online courses, according to Lambert.

“There are many people out there capable of doing Harvard-level work and eager to do it who can’t pay Harvard prices,” said Elisa New, an English Professor who offers courses through edX.

Lambert said that, although DCE tries to keep extension school tuition costs as low as possible, the average undergraduate course is $1,550. New said she has been working closely with Lambert to offer lower cost humanities courses to online learners.

“I have been looking to develop affordable, excellent professional development training for teachers as well as excellent college preparatory education for younger learners,” New said. “Dean Lambert has agreed for a period to lower the cost of all of my courses to $200 and so far the result is that we’ve tripled enrollment.”

New added that, although rapidly growing enrollment poses a challenge, she is “confident” that DCE and edX will be able to develop the new infrastructure necessary to handle more students.

—Staff writer Anna M. Kuritzkes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AnnaKuritzkes.

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