Nation & World

On MOOCs and more

3 min read

Provost Garber issues white paper on digital and residential education at Harvard

Coined by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island, the term MOOC was a brainchild of necessity: the need to name a new learning experience in time for an upcoming talk.

Nearly 3½ years later, massive open online courses are common. MOOC has become a catchall, personifying the rapid evolution of educational technology, and at the same time indicating the changes happening to higher education in the digital age.

In a recently released white paper, “Everywhere and Anytime, Here and Now: Digital and Residential Education at Harvard,” Provost Alan M. Garber reflects upon the rise of MOOCs — “heralded as a disruptive change, garnering praise and provoking anxiety” — and discusses how the University is pursuing its learning and research mission in their wake.

His discussion is centered around the genesis and impact of HarvardX, a faculty-led “organizing force and a testbed for emerging approaches to teaching,” and the edX learning platform, co-founded with Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012.

Both efforts, in fact, have helped to make MOOCs mainstream.

As with many innovations in academia, including Harvard’s elective curriculum and the development of case teaching in the 19th century, the promises offered by digital learning have been met with healthy skepticism. MOOCs are no exception. Yet, Garber writes, “They have become so much a part of how we think about teaching and learning that it is difficult to envision this University — or any other, for that matter — without them.”

As an example, edX has reached 5 million global learners and now has more than 100 partner institutions dedicated to expanding access to knowledge, improving teaching and learning on campuses, and advancing the science of learning.

More than 90 faculty across 10 Schools have participated in HarvardX courses. The initiative has developed more than 60 courses, enabled nearly 20 blended residential classes, and helped generate nearly 100 related research publications.

Given that context, the heft of Garber’s paper wrestles with questions that he and many others had when MOOCs were just emerging — and ones that remain now.

“Would expanded access herald a new age of higher education unbound from brick-and-mortar campuses? Would well-funded institutions render other colleges and universities obsolete? Could the in-person experience be replicated, or at least closely approximated, online? Could the real and the virtual complement and strengthen one another — or would learning and teaching be unrecognizable 50 years hence?”

There are no pat answers, but compelling insights are emerging. Through stories from faculty and learners, data and research insights, and analysis of School-based innovative learning efforts such as Harvard Business School’s HBX, Garber does more than just survey the local landscape; he strives to present firsthand accounts of those on the front lines of new pedagogies.

The paper also identifies issues that will require more attention in coming years, such as the economic sustainability of MOOCs and related efforts and translating research on learning and teaching into improvements in the residential setting. Ultimately, Garber’s aim for the white paper is to inform as well as to provide a basis for conversation around the future of teaching and learning at Harvard.