Campus & Community

iCommons spins a course in Web presence

7 min read

Divinity School students in Ellen Aitken’s “Gospel of Mark” class studied a passage on divorce last week. While they searched themselves – and the pertinent literature – for the significance of the passage’s teachings, they also searched the Internet for details of their assignment.

The Divinity School (HDS) class is one of dozens at HDS and at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) that are taking advantage of a new collaborative information technology project called “iCommons.”

iCommons is tapping independent efforts already under way at Harvard’s Schools and Colleges to create a pool of software tools that its creators and users hope will soon include things like online tools for videos and slide shows – indexed by subject and word so students can find key passages and topics – and polling software and threaded discussion tools, where e-mail exchanges between instructors and students are cataloged and searchable by subject.

Schools use iCommons software along with other online resources to support faculty and student online learning. Working behind the scenes with school-based academic technology groups, the iCommons project provides key pieces of the information technology (IT) infrastructure used to support teaching and learning.

The Divinity School is just one of the beneficiaries of the iCommons project. This collaboration in online learning among the Schools has also helped the GSE, and soon the larger Schools will benefit as well from this University-wide integration. (Illustration by Alec Solomita)

Aitken, a visiting assistant professor of New Testament, said she hopes to use the slide show tool to put photos that she took last summer in Ravena and Rome on the course Web site. The photos are of mosaic panels presenting different depictions of the evangelist Mark.

“I think the slide carousel and the way visual images are handled has the potential to be very helpful,” Aitken said.

The streaming video tool is planned for the next phase of the project. Adapted from software created by the Business School (HBS) for its own use, the prospect of using the tool already has Schools lining up. The tool, which can prepare and index video without having a human programmer writing code, can transform what would be a monthlong job into a few days, according to Susan Rogers, who is heading the iCommons project.

“A presentation tool that automatically creates Web sites, that links it with video without anyone having to write html, is a very, very powerful time saver,” Rogers said.

While the iCommons tools can potentially save a lot of time, they don’t just improve efficiency. Particularly for smaller Schools and departments with more limited information technology budgets, having a universally available software tool or template sometimes means the difference between having some features on the Web or not.


is far beyond anything we were thinking of doing at the Ed School,” says John Hahnfeld, the GSE’s director of information services.

While some courses at Harvard’s Schools and Colleges already feature elaborate Web pages, iCommons so far isn’t enabling anything too fancy. Right now the tools available, largely taken from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Instructor’s Toolkit, provide templates and basic software to post a syllabus, e-mail links to the instructors and teaching assistants, links to secondary pages that include things like assignments or links to pertinent outside resources.

Though some of the more elaborate tools are still being developed, the effort has enabled a huge expansion of the percentage of classes with at least presence on the Web, especially at the Graduate School of Education and at the Divinity School.

At the GSE this semester, all 143 classes have at least basic Web pages. Last spring, that number was 28. Similarly, at the Divinity School, last spring eight classes had Web sites; this fall, all 128 do.

“This is the first time the Graduate School of Education has all its courses with a Web site,” Hahnfeld said.

Even that basic presence is helpful, said Aitken. Many of the Divinity School’s students are older and live off campus, she said. So having assignments posted on the Web is a helpful addition that saves a phone call to the instructor if a student forgets what is due in the coming class.

The iCommons effort was created by the Provost’s Office after several deans expressed a need for collaboration in online learning among the Schools. The initial consortium came together in 2000, and included FAS, the Graduate School of Design, the GSE, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Law School, the School of Public Health, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Alumni Affairs Office.

FAS Dean for Research and Information Technology Paul Martin initially offered to share the course tools created by FAS’s Instructional Computing Group. FAS ran pilot courses that gave participants the opportunity to see how the course tools platform could meet teaching needs in traditional on-campus courses and in three distance courses.

“This effort has marked an important precedent in Schools’ coming together to consider collaborative efforts in an area that has a long history of independent action,” said Assistant Provost and Chief Information Officer Dan Moriarty.

In Harvard’s famously decentralized environment, however, iCommons wants to take advantage of, rather than squelch, different efforts at different Schools. It is those independent efforts to develop Web site tools that are providing iCommons’ programming ideas. Rather than coming up with its own ideas, iCommons takes good ideas from different Schools – so far just the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Business School – and makes them generic.

This involves taking out school-specific references and making the software usable for any audience. While making software generic can be expensive – one recent effort to make an HBS program generic cost $50,000 – it is far cheaper than buying the software anew from an outside vendor or creating it from scratch.

Paul Bergen, senior manager of FAS’s Instructional Computing Group, said that so far FAS has contributed virtually every software tool that it uses on course Web sites. Bergen said much of the debate over iCommons has centered on whether to develop its own software from efforts under way at the schools or to simply purchase software from outside vendors. Because the homegrown software can be made specific to Harvard and adapted over time – even after the outside vendors go out of business – he believes the current effort is the right way to go.

“I think the future of these companies is precarious and, more importantly, for Harvard at least, the investment in an open, homegrown course platform leads to a product of far, far greater value to teaching and learning at this institution,” Bergen said. “The strategic path chosen by iCommons is the path to instructional excellence and innovation, in my opinion.”

Though so far the GSE and HDS have been the main beneficiaries of iCommons, Bergen said he expects the larger Schools to benefit from the new level of University-wide integration and the sharing of ideas fostered by iCommons. The larger Schools, he said, rather than using all of iCommon’s resources, will likely pick and choose particular innovations to augment their existing online course software. FAS has already released a newer version of the software that will continue to be used by FAS faculty.

Judy Stahl, executive director of Harvard Business School’s Information Technology Group, said iCommons provides the resources to adapt HBS’s software for use by other Schools – a proposition too expensive for HBS to do on its own. She also said she expects it to provide resources that will benefit the entire University.

“iCommons is a terrific opportunity for Harvard to provide a platform to all the Harvard Schools that is robust, reliable, and flexible,” Stahl said. “Perhaps unlike some vendor products, iCommons will provide a common platform that is easy to use and will withstand the test of time.”

Contact Alvin Powell at