edX’s Expansion—and Issues

A first-year report on HarvardX and edX, the online-education partnership with MIT

Robert Lue

The edX online-learning venture, one year old in May, has progressed from infancy directly to adolescence, at least, at Internet speed (see “Online Evolution Accelerates,” March-April, page 51). As it does, HarvardX, the University’s operating entity for the initiative, shows signs of both expanding ambitions and the interesting questions that inevitably accompany pell-mell growth.

•International reach. The Harvard-MIT edX partnership welcomed six new members in February, including the first international institutions—Australian National University, Delft University of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, McGill University, Rice University, and the University of Toronto—bringing its roster to a dozen colleges and universities. (As an indication of the sorting-out process under way, Polytechnique, Rice, and Toronto are also members of the for-profit Coursera online enterprise.)

Suggesting edX's international focus—and Harvard's interest in that aspect of such outreach—during President Drew Faust’s spring-break trip to Asia, she and HarvardX faculty director Robert Lue briefed Hong Kong alumni and business leaders on the University’s online teaching. Focusing on the venture during that trip may make strategic sense: analyses of enrollments in free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) suggest high student interest, particularly in technologically oriented classes, in rapidly developing nations such as China, India, and Brazil.

•Infrastructure. The University disclosed its leadership for HarvardX, including a senior administrative cohort (among them, provost Alan Garber, executive vice president Katie Lapp, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael D. Smith); its faculty steering group (with representatives from seven schools and faculties, among them several technologically savvy professors and Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow); an education-research and -assessment committee  (Andrew D. Ho, assistant professor of education, is research director); and a support team (with technology, communications, and fundraising personnel, among others).

As HarvardX gears up to offer multiple courses per term, it has posted notices to hire a dedicated production staff. In early April, it listed openings for a course-development manager, a media manager, and a video manager, plus a pair of research fellows, one of whom will pursue “original research into foundational issues of online instruction, synthesis, and application of extant research to HarvardX courses and instruction, and the design, implementation, and analysis of assessments in HarvardX courses.” Interestingly, each research fellow will report jointly to the director of the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching, the pedagogy program launched in 2011 (see “Investing in Learning and Teaching,” January-February 2012, page 62), and a faculty mentor selected by HarvardX research director Ho.

HarvardX personnel have begun working out of offices at 125  Mount Auburn Street, where video facilities are under construction. An e-guide for faculty members who wish to learn how to create an online course or a shorter, single-subject “module” is now in its test version. In the meantime, both Harvard and MIT seek philanthropic support to undergird their individual, $30-million commitments to launch edX.  Among the events on the HarvardX calendar is a late-April briefing for the Alumni Affairs and Development staff, at the Loeb Drama Center—one of the larger auditoriums on campus.

•Economics. Although edX is not-for-profit (and took the first step toward open-source distribution of its underlying computer code in mid March), it still needs to make its operations self-sustaining for the longer term. In late February, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that edX was offering affiliated institutions two options for posting their courses. Under the “self-service” model, they can use the edX platform for free, producing courses without edX staff assistance; once such courses are live, edX receives the first $50,000 of revenue from the course, and then splits any additional income equally with the university partner. An “edX-supported” model, with full design and production assistance, costs a base fee of $250,000 per course, plus $50,000 for each subsequent term it is offered online. The originating university retains a higher percentage of revenue in this arrangement. According to the Chronicle, Coursera offers member universities a lower percentage of gross revenue from their MOOCs (reportedly 6 to 15 percent, plus other payments), but it does not levy an equivalent minimum payment up-front. An official from a university that evaluated both platforms during the winter said that prospective edX and Coursera costs appeared equivalent over time.

If those figures indicate the cost of developing a course—with its video lectures, supporting materials, online exercises, conversation and messaging tools, programming, and hosting—then Harvard’s ambitions to get multiple courses online each semester suggest significant initial investments. Not counted in such costs, so far, is compensation to faculty members for the time they invest in the preparatory work or running the courses once they appear online. To date, faculty members—a number of them in the teaching-technology vanguard already—who wish to create online courses are doing so with significant University staff and programming support, but without direct compensation for their time.

Faculty members’ changing roles. Compensation aside, online teaching raises new questions about professors’ obligations. The University’s current (2000) “Statement on Outside Activities of Holders of Academic Appointments” says that full-time academic appointees “should not, without permission of the Corporation upon recommendation of the appropriate Dean, engage in teaching, research, or salaried consulting at any other educational institution during the academic year.” But that leaves the summer months, which are traditionally at professors’ discretion, and does not explicitly address online enterprises, which may or may not be educational “institutions.” The statement also “does not seek to define who owns the products of teaching…at Harvard”—traditionally, the faculty members themselves (their courses, texts, etc.).

It further nods toward “opportunities to pursue a wider range of outside activities,” “new information technologies,” and the expanding “number and kind of relationships with external organizations” available. Even the basic statement about teaching (“the reasonable expectation that Harvard students will have special access to an education distinctive to the University they attend, and that teaching efforts of Harvard faculty members will be directed primarily toward the benefit of the University and its members”) has been rendered somewhat obsolete—especially because faculty members’ “opportunities to share their educational and scholarly products with the wider world of higher education and beyond” are not “discouraged.” But permission must be sought before a whole course is taped and disseminated online.

Recognizing the potential for confusion, at a minimum, particularly as Harvard competes through edX, President Faust asked a Council of Deans subgroup to examine the policy questions last fall. Their draft “Teaching and Other Educational Content in the Online Environment,” disseminated for comment, attracted initial notice at the March 5 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting. At the faculty’s April 2 meeting, Dean Smith announced that Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell, who had raised some questions about the draft policy, would lead a small committee to collect FAS colleagues’ comments and prepare them for the Council of Deans’ consideration.

The draft encourages professors to experiment with pedagogical technologies, but says, “When Harvard is able to accommodate a faculty member’s request to make educational content available online, the faculty member is expected to use a Harvard platform” [emphasis added]. Using other platforms requires prior approval. That set of principles is consistent with the investment Harvard is making in the edX platform, and its desire to learn from online courses about how to enhance learning and teaching in classrooms on campus.

But if this policy prevails, Harvard faculty members will be less likely than peers at other institutions to have access to other, evolving technologies for such courses. Stanford, for example, announced in early April that it would use edX’s open-source technology, but not join edX as a partner, per se; it intends to produce online courses on its own and on commercial platforms as well.

Furthermore, the policy brings into play the issue of effective control over a faculty member’s free time and efforts, and possibly teaching content. (The debate is not unique to Harvard; the California faculty associations have raised their colleges’ contracts with Coursera as a possible bargaining issue.) This may foreshadow future discussions about the ownership of professors’ intellectual property, in a context where a course may go far beyond a paper syllabus to costly software, production, and computer investments to engage with students.

•Fun—and function. In its frisky youth, HarvardX is above all an experiment. A popularly appealing course announced for October, for example, is “Science and Cooking,” the applied-sciences course that uses cuisine to teach principles of physics and engineering.

But some choices await. At an off-the-record Harvard-MIT online learning “summit” in early March, education leaders identified plausible applications for and constraints on the new teaching technology. Among the applications (or markets) for the new MOOCs cited were: global learners in developing nations who lack higher-education infrastructure and access to the best class opportunities; U.S. college students, particularly at hard-pressed public community- and state-college systems, who need basic courses, who are being shut out of over-enrolled classes required for their degree sequences, or who simply need cheaper alternatives for higher education; and adult learners seeking practical, career-focused skills.

There were also discussions about finding ways to apply what is known about effective learning to current courses and their students. Such knowledge continues to develop. In early April, Kenan professor of psychology Daniel Schacter and postdoctoral fellow Karl Szpunar published research indicating that lecture videos cut into shorter segments and interspersed with tests yielded much better student attentiveness and retention of content than lectures simply reformatted for delivery in shorter (say, 10-minute) segments: the latest contribution to a vast literature on cognition and learning. Their work has obvious implications for designing online courses—but also for keeping students’ minds from wandering in the traditional lecture-hall format.

Educating the globe and bringing great teaching to much of humanity is a social good, highly motivating to many dedicated professors. Some of edX's MIT participants seem particularly ardent about this potential. Inside Higher Ed quoted edX president Anant Agarwal saying of the Stanford open-source software deal that it pointed to “planet-scale democratization of education” and earlier, of the expansion to include international partner universities, “In the longer term, our mission is to dramatically increase access to education worldwide.” But the MOOC approach, promulgated globally, may not be the foundation for a business plan, and it may undercut residential universities’ economic model.

Although the HarvardX website displays the gross enrollments worldwide in courses on the platform, University administrators have placed more emphasis on using edX tools to enhance on-campus, classroom education. In her Hong Kong remarks, for instance, President Faust presented a balance of objectives: "[W]e want to be able to lead in a way that allows us to enhance our outreach to the world, even as it helps us understand new ways to teach our students on campus” (although the Harvard Gazette account went on to state, "Of more than 700,000 enrollments through edX, about 60 percent come from outside the United States"). As noted, however, applying edX techniques and tools to improve teaching in the classroom context may come at a high price per course, at least during the start-up phases of developing and using the software. Nor is it necessarily the case that even dozens of expensive, online courses, developed by technologically adept professors, will spread the benefits of better teaching, and better use of cognitive and learning science, among their colleagues as a whole.

As for those basic or foundational courses needed at many financially strained community colleges and state universities, professors from leading research universities—used to dealing with high-achieving undergraduate and graduate students—may not be motivated or even properly trained to develop the best foundational courses for entering learners of any sort. That suggests that edX members like the University of Texas system, or Ohio State and the University of Florida (among Coursera partners) may have a leading role to play here. At a time when California legislators are drafting bills (unveiled in mid March) directing public colleges to offer credit for suitable online courses where students are shut out of classes, this is a real priority.

Finally, the engineering and the educational aims need to proceed at the same pace. An April 5, front-page New York Times story, “Software Seen Giving Grades on Essay Tests,” provided a first public glimpse at machine-grading processes and algorithms under development at edX. It quoted Agarwal, an electrical engineer whose course was the proof of concept of what became the edX platform at MIT, predicting the utility of instant-grading software for essays, with distinct advantages compared to classroom learning, where students must wait for days or weeks to get reactions to their written work. “There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback,” he told the Times. “Students are telling us they learn much better with instant feedback.” This is a subject of acute interest and concern to professors in the humanities and some other disciplines, and no doubt merits much more testing, development, and deliberation before it is implemented in large, campus-based courses or smaller, more intensive, learning situations.

As the edX experiment proceeds, HarvardX has the challenging agenda of becoming a learning organization as well as a doing one, capable of applying its research to the experiments underwritten by the Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching across the campus as readily as it is reaching students around the world.

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