Abstaining from art, theater, dance, and most other forms of entertainment, the Puritans took solace “in the word.” Sermons and elegies by local ministers became a kind of glue that held towns together, especially during the hardscrabble days of an emerging nation.

On November 14, in far more comfortable conditions at the Harvard Allston Education Portal, around 60 local community members and 350 online students from around the world joined scholar Elisa New in an exploration of how these words—considered to be some of the first printed poems in America—informed the lives and deaths of the first wave of settlers from England.

New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard, based the evening’s program on her recently launched HarvardX online course “Poetry in America: The Poetry of Early New England.” The modular course is free and open to anyone through the edX learning platform, a joint effort of Harvard and MIT.

Her aim was to introduce the live audience to her “new adventure” of teaching literature using the latest technologies and to allow her virtual students, via a simultaneous webcast, a chance to interact with her in a more intimate and traditional setting.

The event was also a prototype of what is being called AllstonX, a collaboration between HarvardX, the strategic University initiative to support innovative teaching, and the Ed Portal.