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Online Education

What Modularity Means for MOOCs


Peter K. Bol

Peter K. Bol

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Reporting to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at length for the first time since he was appointed vice provost for advances in learning last September, Peter K. Bol highlighted shifts in the landscape for the much-publicized massive open online courses (MOOCs). At the December 3 faculty meeting, Bol noted that:

  • People who register for free MOOCs, like those offered on edX, differ from conventional students, and are not using them like conventional courses.
  • Students enrolled in higher-education institutions seem disinclined to take advantage of not-for-credit MOOCs.
  • Faculty members are increasingly interested in using edX technology to produce “modules”—short units covering a single subject, background information, a problem set, or elements of a larger course—rather than entire courses, which entail an enormous investment of their time and energy.

On the latter point, Bol, who is Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations and a member of the HarvardX faculty committee, has pertinent experience. With colleague William C. Kirby, Chang professor of China studies and Spangler Family professor of business administration, he has adapted Societies of the World 12, “China,” for online teaching through edX as SW12x; it is being taught simultaneously in the College and through the Extension School. (Bol is also a director of Harvard Magazine Inc.)

His remarks came shortly after MIT’s November 21 release of the 109-page preliminary report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, which advanced sweeping ideas for transforming residential teaching and learning, undergraduate study, and indeed the campus itself—all, at least to some degree, in response to the potential of online education.

Together, Bol’s statement and the task-force report suggest rapid evolution in thinking about MOOCs and teaching technology in the 19 months since Harvard and MIT unveiled edX, their joint online-learning venture.

The Faculty and HarvardX

Bol began by emphasizing that Harvard’s participation in edX is driven by its educational mission. “Without faculty,” he said, “there can be no content and thus no HarvardX”—the program through which the University and participating faculty members offer courses for free distribution on the edX software platform. Harvard's engagement in the edX venture, he emphasized, is not simply about disseminating course content; rather, it is meant to support faculty members who wish to incorporate technology innovatively in their teaching on campus: “If we cannot achieve this, we ought to reconsider the program.”

It is also intended to help disseminate course content and learning around the world, Bol continued. (He later noted that professors have previously posted certain popular courses on iTunes University and YouTube, where they have attracted significant audiences.) HarvardX courses, he said, “are different from simply putting a lecture on the Web; they are meant to be learning experiences,” combining lectures, assessments, learner engagements, and discussion forums. They are not presented as courses offering Harvard credit—something long available online, for substantial fees, through the Division of Continuing Education (DCE), where students have contact with the staff, submit papers and problems sets, and take exams. Such courses can count toward a degree in extension studies. HarvardX courses offered through the DCE would have to have similar support, he noted.

Another rationale for participating in edX and offering HarvardX courses, Bol said, is to compete in the large and growing arena of online education. That includes many public and private peer institutions, for-profit MOOC vendors like Coursera, and for-profit colleges and universities. Among the developments Bol cited:

These changes in turn reflect discoveries about free MOOCs’ audiences. Bol noted that noncredit online courses, like those from edX and Coursera, are not attracting students enrolled in colleges or universities—unsurprisingly, perhaps, because those students are focused on earning credits toward their degrees. Schools in other nations, similarly, are adapting MOOCs, but not for credit in their wholly online versions; where they are used to earn course credit, the sponsoring institutions are also requiring attendance on some campus, in-person examinations, and so on.

In that context, Bol noted two further central discoveries about MOOC registrants:

  • First, they are overwhelmingly college graduates, often with a second degree, ranging in age from their late 20s to their 60s: educated learners who want to learn more. (A recent Chronicle of Higher Education report makes this point as well. And as other reports have suggested, MOOC registrants are not predominantly developing-world learners who lack access to indigenous educational institutions, a hoped-for audience; lack of access to the Internet, courses delivered in English, and the demanding nature of higher-level courses prepared by edX and Coursera partners are all cited as discouraging factors.)
  • Second, very few initial registrants seek certificates of completion—or, for that matter, stick with an entire online course—implicitly calling into question the investment in producing full courses, as opposed to modules among which users might browse. Users’ level of engagement with the free MOOC courses is in question. (As previously reported, the edX version of CS50, the introduction to computer science by David J. Malan, senior lecturer on computer science, attracted some 150,300 registrants—nearly one-sixth of total HarvardX course enrollments to date—of whom about 10,900 submitted an initial problem set and just 1,388, or 0.9 percent, earned certificates of completion. That was just twice the 706 students enrolled in the campus version of the course offered at the same time.)

Bol concluded by exploring ways to involve FAS faculty in course and module development (at individual professors’ initiative, in contrast to the more programmatic submissions being conceived by professional schools, with decanal guidance). He also said his office hoped to engage all the faculties in addressing overarching issues such as international users’ censorship of HarvardX course content (such courses, he noted, are “joint creations,” with the faculty member determining content but production costs funded by the University—a situation different from a classroom-only course, owned by the professor), compensation for making an online course, and so on.

Rethinking Education at MIT

The MIT report—an initial result of President L. Rafael Reif’s charge to the task force to “be bold in experimenting with ideas that would both enhance the education of our own students on our own campus and that would allow us to offer some version of our educational experience to learners around the world”—is certainly that. It begins with a review of MIT’s long engagement with online learning (Reif, as provost, stimulated the work that led to MITx and the subsequent edX partnership with Harvard), and notes several trends affecting higher education today, among them:

  • Massive scale of adoption: YouTube, for example, claims a viewership of over one billion unique viewers and over six billion hours of video watched every month.
  • Increased potential and demand for disaggregating or unbundling products: Newspapers have become disaggregated into individual articles available piecemeal online. These are often curated and aggregated by other online sites….Apple unbundled music albums into 99-cent songs, and users re- aggregate individual songs into their own playlists.
  • Blurring of boundaries: Traditional boundaries in various media and platforms are becoming less distinct, creating new opportunities and greater potential for collaboration. The availability of online video through YouTube, iTunes, Hulu, and other sources, for example, has blurred the boundaries between traditional television programming, cable, computers, and mobile phones. Telecommuting has the same effect on the division between offices and homes. Online retail has blurred the boundaries between brick-and-mortar stores such as Walmart, electronic commerce sites such as Amazon, and auction sites such as eBay.

Those changes coincide with rising public concern about the affordability of higher education and access to it, and institutional concern about the pressure on and volatility of traditional revenue sources ranging from tuition and sponsored research to investment returns from endowments.

In this context, the MIT authors raise fundamental questions about the venues for and timing of higher education—matters that go to the heart of future residential learning:

Advances in online education enable learning to take place anywhere at any time, forcing us to question the meaning of the strict physical and temporal boundaries of the campus. No longer must a student be at MIT to take an MIT class. A student could leave campus for a year to start a company, or continue education well after graduating with a master’s degree. The typical time period for an academic degree becomes blurred. This blurring of boundaries shifts the focus from institutions to a learning ecosystem. Resources, relationships, and roles may need to be recast.

Indeed, the task-force working groups seek to explore how “the increased potential for unbundling education and blurring boundaries” presents “opportunities to rethink MIT residential education.” Modular, unbundled learning suggests much-expanded “flexibility in the curriculum, in student experiential learning opportunities, and in each student’s trajectory through an MIT degree. For example, modularity in the curriculum can provide increased flexibility for students to customize their degree programs. Modularity combined with online education permits students to spend a semester or a year away from campus, enriching their educational experience through internships or international experiences.”

MIT clearly differs from Harvard. Its undergraduate engineering curriculum is more professionally oriented and practically focused than the College’s, and therefore bridges some of the distinctions between FAS and Harvard’s professional schools. Many MIT courses fall within the realm of the computer science and engineering fields that have proven especially attractive to MOOC registrants around the world, compared to purely liberal-arts subject.

Nonetheless, there is much else of interest in the detailed working-group discussions of education at and facilities for MIT, global outreach, and the institute’s financial model—all subject to further discussion and refinement. The results to date of the efforts by the several dozen faculty, staff, and student members of the three working groups, and the significant community contributions they received (180 ideas forwarded to an “idea bank,” surveys that garnered responses from more than half of MIT’s faculty and more than one-third of the entire student population), suggest a vigorous, far-reaching discussion under way about the future of learning, teaching, and the structure of education at an elite institution in a technologically enabled era.