Harvard Medical School Launches HMX
Harvard Medical School (HMS) has joined the growing number of academic institutions that offer coursework online. Their series, HMX, is now open to applications from both within and outside the Harvard community. It currently offers subjects like immunology, physiology, and genetics, and soon will expand to include more courses on relevant topics.
Instead of providing these through HarvardX, the University’s existing platform with the Harvard-MIT led consortium platform, edX, HMS requires prospective students to fill out an online application, similar to the process of actually applying to college (instead of references, answers to a series of open-ended questions and self-reporting of previous coursework in the sciences are required). HMX courses cost $800 each, with discounts for students who elect to enroll in multiple courses, another way in which the series differs from the traditionally cost-free edX model. “Running the courses as SPOCs [Small Private Online Courses] instead of a MOOCs [Massive Online Open Courses] allows us to better serve those who want rigorous courses in the medical sciences,” says Michael J. Parker, associate dean for online learning at HMX.
Parker says the foundations for the courses reach back three or four years, and are based on conversations with students, faculty members, and medical practitioners about curriculum reform at Harvard Medical School. “An important question we asked was, ‘How can we get students to the hands-on, clinical portion of their education earlier, to better understand the implications of what they learn in the classroom?’” he explains. HMS students often have two years of preclinical training before they start to apply their skills in actual patient settings; HMX aims to condense some of the basic scientific learning that occurs in those two years. “These courses do place a greater onus on the learner,” Parker adds, when asked why the HMX team chose to require applications and prerequisite courses in areas like biology and chemistry.
For the past two summers, incoming HMS students have been required to try out HMX courses, and more recently, the program was opened to the broader Harvard community through a pilot program. Parker and his team were pleased to find participation from across the University, not just from those who already engage with the sciences on a day-to-day basis: “Our participants have been all across the board, including a high-school science teacher hoping to become a doctor, a rheumatology doctor in training interested in taking our course in immunology, and people from industry (spouses, for example) hoping to get deeper insight and knowledge about the medical sciences relevant to health care.” Other participants include those who are caring for a loved one suffering from illnesses like cancer, or even patients themselves, who want to understand the science behind disease. Applicants lacking a science background are asked to write a statement of intent, which Parker says plays a significant role in admission.
Although the HMX series was only recently made available to the public, a few innovations have already materialized from participant feedback and collaboration. Parker says he and his team look forward to expanding the clinical application videos, which feature patients and doctors in hospital settings. They “allow students to get a first-hand look into the decision-making processes that doctors have when trying to diagnose a patient,” he says. “We’ve gotten great feedback from students about these videos for how useful they are to someone who wants to practice medicine someday.” And in response to feedback that many students felt uncomfortable exposing gaps in their learning, or uncertainty about subjects under discussion, the team allowed participants to post anonymously, so that moderators (often HMS students who have taken the courses themselves) can respond.
One of HMX’s key goals, which is to enable prospective medical students to more quickly reach the applied portion of their learning could, if successful, make a significant difference in medical training. It remains to be seen whether the program’s decision to require applications will render it more successful than its MOOC counterparts, which often attract high enrollment numbers, but comparably high rates of incompletion.