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Teaching and Learning: Taking Stock

January-February 2016

Alan M. Garber

Stephanie Mitchell/HPAC


Alan M. Garber

Stephanie Mitchell/HPAC

Three years after the inception of edX, the Harvard- and MIT- led online-course venture, and four years after the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) was formed, the University is taking stock of its efforts to enhance pedagogy and education. In a white paper assessing HarvardX and online learning, Provost Alan M. Garber outlined three topics of inquiry for the formal review of the University’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) planned for this spring: “economic sustainability, research on learning and teaching, and the translation of that research into improvements in learning, especially in the residential setting.” In subsequent conversations, he and Peter K. Bol, vice provost for advances in learning, provided more details about the research effort, the application of online-course technology to on-campus teaching, and changes in classroom practice.

The time is right for a review, the provost said. With several dozen full courses and shorter modules already released, spanning Harvard’s schools and disciplines, substantive data exist on approaches to online teaching and to course selection and development—and the underlying edX technology platform has been refined. The program is “on a good path right now,” but not so “fully established” that it becomes less susceptible to improvement.

Garber’s paper reviews several broad, early findings from what might be seen as HarvardX’s experimental stage. Faculty interest has been robust: professors have submitted numerous applications to create online courses and shown their interest in pedagogy and teaching (evidenced by attendance at HILT conferences and the dozens of projects it has funded). Building the high-quality courses HarvardX distributes via edX requires “substantial effort and time”: in the form of HarvardX’s 50-member staff and production facilities; and in the teachers’ course preparation, filming, and so on. By this past October, some 3 million people had registered for courses and 2 million had “engaged” by performing some activity within the courses.

The motivations and preparation of registrants vary widely, Garber reported—far more than among students admitted to residential-degree programs. That duality reflects a choice Harvard made in pursuing its online ambitions, described this way in his paper:

[W]as our goal to improve teaching on our campus,…or…to improve the learning opportunities for anybody anywhere in the world with an interest in the subjects we teach?…We realized that courses narrowly targeted toward Harvard students were unlikely to attract the largest group of learners worldwide to our MOOCs. But if we wanted to improve residential learning, many of our online and hybrid learning experiences…would need to be compatible with our faculty’s approaches to teaching Harvard students….The rationale for focusing on either educating the world or educating students on our campus…was strong. But our mission required us to do more.…[W]e chose to move forward with a commitment to serve both audiences.

Building on the admittedly descriptive research findings so far, and recognizing the structural challenges of pursuing these disparate groups—Garber noted “a genuine tension” there—he suggested significant priorities for the coming year. One is sorting out faculty-driven nominations for online courses versus “taking a more targeted approach to course development” by creating sequential courses or filling existing gaps, so external users can pursue deeper mastery of a subject. (MIT already does this for some of its edX offerings.) Another is making it easier for faculty members to develop less-than-course-length online units (“briefer modules,” which can stand alone or be adopted by teachers of other courses). Third is “how to incorporate digital media into MOOCs and our teaching on campus,” for instance through accessing museum collections and library holdings (as in the current multipart “The Book,” which is not tied to any current campus course). A final goal is assuring that online content is available for use in campus courses.

A good deal hinges on obtaining more in-depth research, for which Bol’s organization has created an integrated team of analysts led by professor of government Dustin Tingley. The edX platform now permits rigorous “A/B” testing of differing teaching methods and learning outcomes, applicable to the enormous data sets accumulated from learners enrolled in each online course. Tingley’s team can design such experiments into courses by working with their instructors, and can also bring to the discussion insights from cognitive science and pedagogical research elsewhere. (Meanwhile, it remains more difficult to assess residential courses. Garber noted that there is “rarely consensus on what outcomes to measure,” given a spectrum ranging from student knowledge at the end of a course, to applications of that experience later in life. Bol observed that campus courses are typically so small that it is difficult to gather statistically valid data from the number of students enrolled.)

As experimentation continues with increasing precision and depth, making the transition to a new economic model naturally emerges as a priority. Garber’s paper notes that most Harvard online courses “are free and open, and I do not expect that to change.” But funding those courses “thanks to the support of generous donors as well as unrestricted University funds…cannot be sustained indefinitely at current levels.” (The Faculty of Arts and Sciences contributed $2.5 million to edX in each of its first two years, and other Harvard schools were likely assessed, too.) Hence the interest in fee-based, professional-education applications, distribution through the Division of Continuing Education, and other revenue-generating options.

Hence the interest in fee-based, professional-education applications, distribution through the Division of Continuing Education, and other revenue-generating options.

Much of this sorting out is the responsibility of vice-provost Bol, who oversees both HarvardX and HILT—bringing the University’s principal vehicles for pedagogical innovation together with its central research group for designing experiments in teaching and learning.

As Carswell professor of East Asian languages and literatures, Bol has taught seminars and large lectures, adopted digitized and online content in his classes, and co-developed the multi-module ChinaX offering online. (He is also a director of Harvard Magazine Inc.) Recalling his own student days (when images of China were projected from glass slides) and the evolution of his own teaching, he said that education innovation has been continuous at Harvard. Rather than worry that the early investment in MOOCs has not yet transformed classrooms across the campus, he pointed to active and experiential learning in many disciplines; new kinds of hands-on labs; the spread of case teaching across schools; and wide instructor interest and involvement in HILT through conferences, grants, biweekly teaching-practice newsletters, and more.

“How can we improve teaching and learning for everyone?” he asked, and take advantage of technology to make Harvard teaching accessible worldwide for the first time—a potential that has excited many faculty members. The largest benefit from HarvardX so far may be that the courses are “not just back-of-the-class lecture capture” on video. Instead, participating faculty members have been explicit about their educational objectives, and about exploring the best way to achieve them. Such practices apply equally to the classroom, broadening professors’ awareness of what they must do to encourage and enable students to learn.

Participating faculty members have been explicit about their educational objectives, and about exploring the best way to achieve them.

On the very near horizon is broad adoption of the Canvas learning-management system, the classroom course platform now being rolled out across Harvard. Unlike earlier course websites, which provided requirements and a syllabus, and sometimes links to readings or other materials, Canvas can be used to create a dashboard enabling students to see frequent assessments of their work, and teachers to see in real time whether students are progressing. Such speedy feedback, if proven effective, could be “an area where we’re prepared to make a significant investment,” Bol said. Over time, the system can incorporate HarvardX-like modules and digital content—helping along the merging of lessons from online approaches with residential classroom practice.

Lest this appear threatening to other modes of learning, Bol hastened to add that the evidence on the effectiveness of active learning (in-class problem sets, for instance) does not, by formula, mean that the lecture will expire. He stressed the importance of determining what any course aims to teach, and where lecturing or active learning or machine-guided adaptive learning may be most effective. Large General Education lectures (and their departmental equivalents) have a distinct, enduring value. Acquiring information and mastering certain bodies of knowledge, he said, may not be the point of a literature or philosophy course.

“We need to discriminate among learning goals, teaching modes, and the appropriate standards for each,” Bol said. In the current era, with more teaching and assessment tools, richer technology, and large-scale and seminar-size courses being taught side by side, the menu of options is longer than ever.

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