Campus & Community

Reconnecting graduates

5 min read

Alumni Association, HarvardX launch experimental online learning program

In “Gone Tomorrow,” a novel steeped in academic life, Professor P.F. Kluge writes: “In some ways the goals of teaching and writing are the same. You hope to connect to someone else, to make them care about what you care about. So that the things which matter, the things that matter to you, matter to them.”

The desire to rekindle close intellectual bonds is fueling an experimental endeavor called HarvardX for Alumni. Jointly run by HarvardX and the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA), HAA1x is an opportunity for all University graduates to be part of an exclusive, online learning experience.

“Lifelong learning keeps our alumni connected to Harvard. From the launch of HarvardX, our alumni have been asking how they can participate,” said HAA President Catherine A. Gellert ’93. “With the launch of HarvardX for Alumni, we will be able to connect all our alumni to the exciting things happening in Harvard’s classrooms — and with the marvel of technology, meet everybody’s schedule and interests.”

The inspiration to develop a prototype HarvardX program for alumni stems from summertime “blue sky” conversations begun by Robert Lue, faculty director for HarvardX, to spur innovative thinking. Serving as a test bed is a core aspect of HarvardX, a University-wide initiative dedicated to enhancing residential learning, advancing research, and expanding access to knowledge.

“We always knew that we could do something special with HarvardX and alumni. As an alum myself, Harvard has played an essential role in my life,” said Lue. “But others who are far away or have busy lives … how could they come back beyond just reunions and special events? How could we, in essence, bring Harvard to them wherever they are?”

Slated to begin on March 22 and wrap up in the early summer, HAA1x will offer alumni a “greatest hits” sampling of the intellectual riches and dynamic voices of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and bring alumni up to date on the latest innovations in teaching and learning.

With topics ranging from Greek classics to poetry to neuroscience, Lue will play the role of a modern Alistair Cooke, setting up each new segment, released biweekly, and weaving together broad themes. Participants will be able to pick and choose based on what they find particularly appealing, or take a deep dive into the entirety of the program.

Since the experience seeks to capture the spirit of Harvard, some footage is campus-based or incorporates iconic elements such as the John Harvard statue, the scientific instrumentation lab, or objects from the museums. In addition to exclusive video content created for HAA1x — all sharing an elegant, uncluttered look and feel — existing HarvardX course videos and content will be interwoven, showcasing innovations from annotation tools to interactive timelines to animations.

Setting the program apart from many other MOOCs, or massive open online courses, the virtual-learning components will be bolstered by local Harvard clubs and shared-interest groups worldwide, and may include live chats with faculty.

“We have already seen firsthand how HarvardX can provide an incredible platform for alumni to connect with the intellectual life at Harvard,” said Donald Guiney ’78, president of the Harvard Club of the United Kingdom.

This past fall, a group of U.K. members decided to experience the ChinaX course together, meeting weekly during the semester. Upon visiting the U.K. club, course co-instructor William Kirby, T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration, said that almost every member knew the words to the “dynasty song,” a mnemonic sing-along created to help ChinaX students memorize the order of the Chinese ruling dynasties.

Upon hearing the tale, Kirby’s other half in the endeavor, Peter Bol, vice provost for advances in learning and the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, said he was surprised and gratified to learn how alumni had come together as a literal chorus.

“We hope our engagement experiment for HarvardX for Alumni will allow alumni to further grow and evolve their personal networks with fellow alumni, even from different Harvard Schools, forming new professional and personal partnerships,” said Lue.

In addition to promoting group learning about everything from the slow reading of epic poems to the action potentials of neurons to the theory of relativity, the HarvardX and HAA partnership has an underlying aspiration to cultivate and nurture connections to Harvard at large, as well as to deepen connections to Schools and departments.

“Given all that our alumni do for Harvard, we are very pleased to be able to give them this sort of exclusive access to Harvard, a place that has been their home physically and intellectually,” said Philip Lovejoy, deputy executive director of the HAA. “At the same time, we at the HAA are excited about how this experiment will help us learn about how alumni wish to interact, and will provide guidance for what we do in the future.”

HarvardX for Alumni trailer