Nation & World

A new office, a global audience

7 min read

In a Q&A session, Peter Bol, a leader in online learning, outlines the challenges and prospects ahead

Appointed as the vice provost for advances in learning at Harvard last September, Peter Bol is responsible for HarvardX, the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, and a new collaborative educational research group — in addition to serving as the Charles H. Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Bol also taught ChinaX, a massive open online course (MOOC) through HarvardX, with William Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies. Coinciding with the Online Learning Summit, hosted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard this week, the Gazette interviewed Bol about his recent appointment, and the challenges and risks that lie ahead in the era of online learning.

GAZETTE: What can you tell us about the mission of your office?

BOL: I bring together three different areas. First is the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, which has been concerned with pedagogy directed at advances in teaching and learning across the University. Next is HarvardX, founded two years ago to create open online learning content made accessible to the world through platforms like edX, for which Harvard and MIT made the initial investment. Then there’s a group devoted to research on teaching and learning in the online learning space, and I think we’ll see an increase in attention to residential teaching and learning as well. One of my goals is to ensure that what we do with HarvardX is also circulated through campus; that what we do in research not only improves the quality of our learning online, but also that the research on online learning and teaching can benefit the residential community here at Harvard, and build pedagogy across the schools.

GAZETTE: What challenges and risks do you see in this field?

BOL: A lot of research is done on teaching and learning, and it’s hard to make a connection between that and practice. Faculty are hired because they advance the research mission of the University. But they are also teachers, and they want to learn more about effective teaching, just as students are interested in effective learning. We have to work on that: What are our best practices, what are our strategies, what methods can be adopted? None of this is easy. When it comes to online learning, we know it involves a tremendous commitment of faculty time to create online courses, and we need to find a way for faculty who are really interested in making something smaller — drill sections for students to practice, for example — and I want to be able to encourage that. But one of the questions you can ask is, what is the incentive for faculty to teach in new ways, and HarvardX has played an interesting role in that. We’ve had more than 70 faculty members participate in HarvardX to date. From what I’ve heard from faculty, it’s been a very transformative experience.

GAZETTE: The Third Online Learning Summit is coming up this week — what are your expectations for that event?

BOL: All elements of online learning will be discussed, from curriculum design to “gamification,” how we impact the residential community, the learner experience. More than 120 people from leading universities from around the world are attending this event to improve online teaching and learning. That global discussion will be a tremendous experience. Harvard has this wonderful Division of Continuing Education, which has been successfully offering online classes and academic credit for those courses for a long time. That situates Harvard very well to explore online learning in a wide variety of formats.

GAZETTE: Does Harvard have a unique role to play in this field?

BOL: We’re unique in that we probably have the most diverse and highest-quality collection of open online courses of any university. We are truly representative of the whole University. Our courses cover the entire range of subjects taught at Harvard, including business, law, medicine, divinity, public health, humanities, science and engineering, and the social sciences. We’re making great efforts in it. We have 54 courses at the moment, with new ones opening up every month.

GAZETTE: What do you feel are the impacts of MOOCs on campus, as far as learning technologies?

BOL: The materials used for MOOCs can certainly be used in on-campus classes as well.

In fact, some faculty members are using what’s called the “flipped” classroom, in which lectures are recorded and provided online, and then the classroom session is used for discussion. It really moves away from the lecture, toward hybrid learning, where some learning is done online and some is done in person.

GAZETTE: What are your thoughts on the recent research report on MOOC learners, conducted by Harvard and MIT?

BOL: It showed we’ve expanded the total numbers of users and that we have increasing engagement with participants. One of the most interesting findings is that we’re serving a high percentage of learners who are post-B.A. and abroad — but they’re also younger, with many in their 20s and 30s. And many of those students, even those in their 20s, identify themselves as lifelong learners. Five percent of the learners have Ph.D.s, and 20 percent have master’s degrees. In February, we had 2.6 million registrations, and around a million people were actively involved in courses, which is amazing.

From my perspective, what I find most interesting is we have a very high proportion of teachers — and they’ve told us that they’re using the course in their classes, assigning it to their own students. They’re taking advantage of our online learning, and creating hybrid learning of their own. If we’re helping to teach the teachers, of course, we’re reaching even more people than are actively involved in the courses, which is great. If one of our goals as a university is to advance knowledge through learning, then one of the things that HarvardX must represent is that leadership ought to be based on learning. If I could create a tagline for HarvardX, that would be it: leading through learning. This media we’re looking at now is extraordinarily effective in teaching, and our teaching is now going well beyond the walls of Harvard. We’re contributing to knowledge not only through our research and our teaching, but it’s helping make learners across the world more sophisticated, and stronger educators.

GAZETTE: Your HarvardX course, ChinaX, recently released part 10 out of 10 learning modules. What thoughts do you have on that experience?

BOL: It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had in teaching. The learners became ever more engaged, and the numbers are really interesting: Across that course, 19,000 learners earned certifications, the highest certification attainment across HarvardX courses. It shows that if you have a well-done series of courses, you can build and hold an audience of learners for an extended amount of time — for 18 months, in fact. We had learners in 165 countries, with a majority from the U.S., China, the U.K., Canada, and Germany. Sixteen percent of our learners were from China, as opposed to 4 percent for all HarvardX courses. One of the things we did was to involve all our faculty who teach on China at the University. We brought them in, interviewed them, asked them about their work, articles they’d written. And that was something our learners really appreciated.

GAZETTE: Do you have a response to MOOC-disruption books, such as “The End of College”?

BOL: I don’t see it yet. Increasingly, across many universities, students expect that their courses will be available in online formats and in-person formats. As that increases, I expect it will happen here at Harvard as well. I don’t think that means people won’t go to school, but just that it will be available in different ways. This March, Harvard College accepted less than 2,000 students out of 37,000 applicants. Around 80 percent of HarvardX users define themselves as lifelong learners, and we’re getting a lot of people coming out of college who want to continue learning. It just makes perfect sense: We offer thousands of courses at Harvard, and students can take just 32 [before graduation]. I don’t see how we can go wrong helping more people get education. If you’re in the business of being an educator and a researcher, you definitely want the number of people learning to increase.