To bring her online modules on American poetry to life, Professor Elisa New took advantage of Harvard’s magnificent surroundings (in this case, Memorial Church) and coaxed some of her talented students to “sing” the verses of colonial era poet Edward Taylor. New is using multimedia to convey how, for Taylor, who wrote in strict, formal structures, poetry was a kind of apparatus to be used in the same way that gymnasts and weightlifters use uneven bars and weights.

Photo by Marlon Kuzmick

Nation & World

Varied offerings from HarvardX

9 min read

Learning options for fall include small modules as well as full courses

HarvardX, the faculty-led educational endeavor that supports innovative online teaching and research on campus and beyond, announced its new course offerings, expected to roll out through this fall.

Students will be able to choose from learning experiences that last several months, akin to courses, and modules, discrete, topic-based units designed to be both standalone and integratable with traditional academic classes.

Developed with the support of two HarvardX faculty-led committees, the courses and modules cover a range of subjects, from architecture to poetry and from clinical trials to health and society, and represent eight Schools. HarvardX, in particular, is embracing the arts and humanities, with a large number of courses and modules coming from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

Providing broad and specialized content, the HarvardX versions of campus-based courses include some from the College’s General Education program, such as SPU27x, “Science and Cooking,” as well as others that are core components of professional programs in public health, government, and medicine.

A few of the offerings, like the module MCB80.1x, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience,” were created specifically to take advantage of online learning technologies and are fully open. Others, such as GSD1.1x, “The Architectural Imaginary,” are what are known as small, private, online courses, or SPOCS, intended only for enrolled campus students — in this case those at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD).

Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX and professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology, gives enormous credit to the “faculty HarvardX pioneers” who helped pave the way for this next set of courses and modules.

“Their experience, insights, and willingness to share best practices is essential to our success. One of the most significant outcomes of HarvardX has been the way it has convened faculty and elevated teaching and learning across the campus,” said Lue, who is also the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. “Each course is a living experiment. These are not plug-and-play formats, but newly developed or combined instructional approaches based on the carefully considered learning goals of the faculty.”

In addition to the lead faculty and instructors, HarvardX courses and modules are supported by a team of fellows and graduate students (who help to manage everything from content to quizzes to discussion forums) and technical experts (who contribute to video and academic tools, and handle the complex issues like copyright clearances). The collaborative approach leads to robust online learning experiences, with the option to vary both form and function on the fly.

“Science and Cooking” will include “labs that you can eat.” Online students will be asked to vote on favorite recipe examples in advance, and encouraged to engage in kitchen science at home. AI12.1x/2.x, two modules forming what will become a collection called “Poetry in America,” will feature a wealth of multimedia resources, including videos of objects from Harvard’s extensive library collections and footage from areas in Massachusetts that captures the settings where poets wrote and lived.

At the same time, each online offering is an opportunity for a faculty member to implement a study on pedagogy. Having a research question — from persistence and performance to retention of material — as part of each course or module is a requirement, as is an eye toward recirculating any discoveries about student learning back into Harvard’s campus classes.

“By allowing rigorous research on how students learn, we see HarvardX courses as helping to inform, not displace, the on-campus experience,” said Andrew Ho, chair of the HarvardX Research Committee and an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). “We are already analyzing terabytes of data from thousands of users, to chart their learning trajectories and evaluate the helpfulness of online resources and peer-to-peer interactions. We are learning valuable lessons from the courses just wrapping up and will launch more studies on pedagogy in the coming year.”

Even with only the first wave of HarvardX courses completed or nearly completed, that migration from online to on-campus has begun. PH207x, “Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research,” which wrapped up in January, is serving as a test case for the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to “flip” various on-campus courses. “Flipping classrooms,” an increasingly common practice wherein students watch lectures in advance, frees up course time for more hands-on activities, discussion, and faculty-student engagement.

Likewise, Terry Fisher, WilmerHale Professor of Intellectual Property Law at Harvard Law School, designed HLS1x, “Copyright,” like a real-time case study on the case method. The limited-enrollment course took advantage of the ability to offer students different sets of texts simultaneously, as well as “cohorting,” or segmenting the students into smaller groups to provide greater interaction with teaching fellows and better study learning outcomes.

Fisher and his course team are also taking advantage of number-crunching support from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and from the metaLAB, a research and teaching unit based at the Berkman Center and the GSD that is dedicated to exploring and expanding the frontiers of networked culture in the arts and humanities. They hope to understand issues related to student retention and provide a model for other highly interactive, smaller case-based online courses.

Beyond the campus, HarvardX has also found its way into the hearts and minds of alumni around the world. In Greg Nagy’s CB22x, “The Ancient Greek Hero,” running currently, onetime Harvard College students who took the traditional campus course in past decades were recruited and trained to serve as mentors. Nagy, the Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and professor of comparative literature, wanted to provide a greater level of personalization for the nearly 30,000 online students, and to create ambassadors for epic poetry.

Jonathan Haber, who writes the blog “Degree of Freedom” and is conducting an experiment by trying to complete a B.A. “degree” in liberal arts in one year by taking online courses, is well on his way to embracing his inner ancient ”Greekness.”

“Nagy is pulling his students through a learning experience where we never know whether the next Hour will include material from Homer, Hoffman or Schwarzenegger,” Haber wrote.  “But we do know we will have to engage very deeply with challenging texts, and even more challenging exercises … which are all part of a quest to get us to think like Ancient Greeks …”

The big lesson so far is that the newest innovations in learning share a deep intellectual kinship with the oral tradition, a method of knowledge transfer predating printed textbooks by centuries. Thinking, after all, is not bound by technology.

Here are the expected fall 2013 courses and modules from HarvardX. (Note: Only the lead faculty instructors are listed.)

  • GSD1.1x, “The Architectural Imaginary” (module, limited enrollment, campus-only), K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory, Harvard Graduate School of Design
  • SPU27x, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science” (course), Michael Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics and Harvard College Professor, and David Weitz, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences/Harvard College
  • SW12x, “China” (course), Peter K. Bol, Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and William C. Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration; Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor; Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration
  • MCB80.1x, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part 1: The Electrical Properties of the Neuron” (module), David Cox, Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology and of Computer Science, Faculty of Arts and Sciences/Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • MCB54.1x, “Cell Biology” (module), Robert Lue, Professor of the Practice of Molecular and Cellular Biology; Director of HarvardX; Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and Alexander Schier, Leo Erikson Life Sciences Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • AI12.1x and AI12.2x, “Poetry in America” (two modules: The Poetry of Early New England and Whitman), Elisa New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • HSPH-HMS214x, “Fundamentals of Clinical Trials” (course), James H. Ware, Frederick Mosteller Professor of Biostatistics; Associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Science, Harvard School of Public Health/Faculty of Arts and Sciences, developed through Harvard Catalyst
  • HKS211.1x, “Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press: An Introduction” (module), Graham T. Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Director of Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and David Sanger, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Chief Washington Correspondent of The New York Times (Note: due to the sensitive nature of some of the material, select features such as discussion boards, will have limited enrollment sections
  • HDS1544.1x, “The Letters of the Apostle Paul” (module), Laura Nasrallah, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Harvard Divinity School
  • PH201x, “Health and Society” (course), Ichiro Kawachi, Professor of Social Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health and Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • SW25x, “Introduction to Global Health: A Biosocial Approach” (course), Salmaan Keshavjee, Director of the Program in Infectious Disease and Social Change in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior TB specialist at Partners In Health, and Paul Farmer, co-founder of the Boston-based public charity Partners In Health and Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University and chair of both the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital

While not starting until January 2014, the first offering from the Graduate School of Education will be open for registration this summer:

  • GSE1x, “Unlocking the Immunity to Change” (course), Robert Kegan, The William and Miriam Meehan Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Lisa Lahey, Lecturer on Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Open registration and additional information about the HarvardX offerings are available on the edX site: