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John Harvard's Journal

Online Overdrive

July-August 2013

The frantic pace of expansion and experimentation in online education—spurring HarvardX and its edX partnership with MIT, and its principal for-profit competitors Coursera and Udacity—has if anything sped up in recent weeks. Herewith a snapshot of new alliances; intriguing new applications for massive open online courses (MOOCs); some emerging criticisms and counterreactions; and future course offerings.

Global reach. On May 21, edX announced 15 new partners, bringing the total to 27. They include Cornell; a second liberal-arts college, Davidson; and, of particular importance, 10 international institutions, among them Peking and Tsinghua universities, in Beijing, the leading schools in China; Kyoto University (Japan); Seoul National University (South Korea); and two Hong Kong affiliates. Rival Coursera now lists 81 affiliates around the world, including several museums; Yale became a partner in mid May, having acted on a faculty committee’s recommendation to create an academic director of online education and a standing committee to advise its provost. Yale intends to offer four general-interest Coursera courses in the coming academic year, and will separately pursue its for-credit online language courses with Cornell and Columbia.

New audiences and approaches. Beyond these institutional and geographic expansions, MOOC providers have introduced new teaching applications. First, Coursera rolled out free professional-development courses for elementary- and secondary-school teachers, on subjects from classroom skills to early-childhood development. Participating institutions include the University of Washington; the University of Virginia; Johns Hopkins; the American Museum of Natural History; the Museum of Modern Art; and others. Can courses for K-12 students be far behind? The potential market, and demand among hard-pressed school districts, would seem enormous.

Then, in mid May, Udacity and Georgia Institute of Technology announced an online master’s degree in computer science, aiming to serve 10,000 students during the next three years (300 are enrolled on campus). The degree would cost $7,000—a fraction of the annual tuition for residential students—in part reflecting a $2-million sponsorship from AT&T, and Georgia Tech’s need to hire only a handful of instructors to support the new online learners; Udacity will provide staff “mentors” to handle student questions.

And at month’s end, Coursera unveiled a partnership with 10 large public university systems—including those of Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, and New York—to create systemwide, for-credit online and “blended” classes. Coursera would reportedly charge from $8 to $60 per student, depending on the origins of the course content and its application. Both the State University of New York and the University of Georgia are focusing on tens of thousands of students who are not now served in their systems—a potentially huge boost for enrollment and degree completion. Former Princeton president William G. Bowen, who has written extensively about online education (and addressed the subject at a Harvard-MIT conference in early March), told The New York Times, “We have encouraged Coursera to work with the large state university systems…because that’s where the numbers are, and that’s where there are the biggest issues in terms of cost, completion, and access. It’s still exploratory, but this partnership has the potential to make real headway in dealing with those issues.”

Critiques. MOOCs are not for everyone, nor are they cost-free. In April, the faculty of Amherst—then being wooed by edX—voted against joining. Professors expressed concern about seeming to move away from the college’s strong focus on residential, colloquy-based instruction. A few days later, Duke’s Arts & Sciences Council voted against letting undergraduates at that university receive credit for online courses through the nascent 2Uconsortium. On April 29, philosophy professors at San Jose State University, which is experimenting with online courses and “flipped” classrooms (students view lectures and then meet in class to work through challenging content) wrote an open letter to Bass professor of government Michael J. Sandel, expressing concern that the HarvardX version of his popular “Justice” course could have the effect of wiping out indigenous faculties’teaching at less wealthy institutions like their own—a specific illustration of the economics of online teaching suggested by Georgia Tech’s master’s-degree experiment. The letter ignited a firestorm of comment in the academic press, focusing fears about the changes that online pedagogy might entail. And on May 8, American University’s provost, Scott A. Bass, declared a moratorium on MOOCs while that school elaborates policies on their costs and benefits; release time for faculty who develop a course disseminated for free; academic oversight of MOOC courses; and other issues.

Members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences touched on some of these concerns in their May 7 meeting (see “Governance at Issue,” below). On May 23, a letter signed by 58 FAS faculty members (among them three University Professors and four former high-ranking FAS deans) to Dean Michael D. Smith asserted, “It is our responsibility to ensure that HarvardX is consistent with our commitment to our students on campus, and with our academic mission.” The letter, which was apparently meant to be confidential but leaked, went on to ask Smith to “appoint a committee of FAS ladder faculty to draft a set of ethical and educational principles that will govern FAS involvement in HarvardX,” to be voted on in the coming academic year.

Smith responded with a statement supporting “free inquiry and spirited debate” on these matters, while emphasizing his commitment to ensuring that all faculty members have the academic freedom to structure courses and pedagogy as they see fit, with institutional support as required. HarvardX, he wrote, “consists of the faculty members—from FAS and across the University—who have chosen to undertake these innovative efforts.” He indicated his comfort with the existing HarvardX committees, on which FAS is represented. What FAS decides on matters such as compensation for participating professors’ time, granting credit for online courses, and so on, remains to be seen.

Forthcoming courses. In the meantime, the roster of those courses continues to expand. The June HarvardX e-newsletter outlines new courses and “modules” (units shorter than a semester-length course), in fields ranging from public health (the fundamentals of conducting clinical trials) and poetry (modules on early New England and Walt Whitman) to modern Chinese history, education, religion (“The Letters of the Apostle Paul”), and cellular biology.

For continuing coverage, visit www.harvardmag.com/topic/online-education.