John Harvard’s Journal (2013) Online evolution accelerates, Harvard Magazine, March-April, 2013

This article provides an insight in the thinking and plans for Harvard’s use of MOOCs within edX, and some faculty reactions. In particular:

  • in its second season this spring, it will be offering its first non-quantitative MOOCs in humanities, including courses on both Greek and Chinese history
  • edX aims at assessing the effectiveness of innovations in teaching and learning, and Harvard has appointed an assistant professor of education as research director; research objectives include:
    • finding out who the several thousand students who completed early MOOCs are
    • conducting learning assessments;
    • exploring how to assure integrity among online learners
  • meetings were also held with faculty in Harvard;s Faculty of Arts to discuss MOOCs and their reactions are recorded in the article, ranging from hostile, to mildly critical, to interested
  • from the discussions several points emerged:
    • edX is explicitly meant to extend teaching broadly, for those who are interested, and to devise techniques to improve on-campus, class-based learning in all disciplines and formats
    • part of its experimental nature is to devise tools, such as online laboratories for science classes, but also qualitative assessments of coursework
    • no one has figured out a sustainable business model yet, but ‘it is nascent.’ (Harvard’s funding commitment is tied to grants and philanthropy.)


Once again, edX institutions such as MIT and Harvard appear to be taking a more thoughtful approach to MOOCs than Coursera or Udacity. If nothing else, MOOCs are forcing Ivy League academics to think about online learning in ways that those in public institutions have been doing for many years. Indirectly it is making online learning more aceptable generally.

MOOCs offer elements that are new, in particular the opportunity to collect data very quickly from very large data sets of student information, which could provide useful insights into how to teach very large numbers of students at low or minimal cost. They allow for innovation and experimentation with peer assessment and other forms of assessment. However, it still remains to show that these new approaches to assessment are valid or reliable,

What is disappointing is the continual lack of recognition of the research, design and best practices that have come from earlier work on online learning. Frankly, this shows a lack of scholarship that would not be tolerated in other disciplines – and it is coming from those very institutions that place most emphasis on scholarship. They should be incorporating best online practices into MOOCs – as far as the format allows – before throwing them at learners. But that would mean acknowledging that MOOCs are an evolution of online teaching, and not something new invented by Ivy League universities.




  1. Tony, good comments. I am currently experiencing my 3rd MOOC as a learner and find them challenging to engage in but wonderful in terms of content, experts and community of learners.

    Like you, I have a background in distance and online learning and would be overwhelmed to design and deliver a MOOC ( but am considering it). My question is how much experience do these institutions have with online delivery? From the literature, not much.
    I think those skills are critical for success.

    • Thanks, Kelly, for your comment. While it is true that many of the MOOCs are being offered by institutions or people with no prior online learning experience, some of the later entrants do have this experience (for instance UBC is to do four MOOCs).

      The issue though is as much one of pedagogy as it is of experience. It is difficult to apply a constructivist, developmental approach to a course with thousands of students and effectively one instructor. cMOOCs attempt to get round this through more active involvement of all the participants in contributing towards content as well as the ‘lead’ instructor (usually many in cMOOCs, but on a sequential basis,) so the issue of one core instructor to many thousands of students is still there.

      However, even in cMOOCs it is often quite difficult to engage the majority of students in active participation and, in particular, in engaged, multi-person, academically developing discussions. The result (from both kinds of MOOC) often is a fairly shallow approach to understanding, a collection of many individual opinions, or at best a ‘learn this stuff’ approach.

      Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how the design of MOOCs emerges as institutions and people with more experience of credit-based online learning start grappling with the issue. Will they add value, or will ‘instructional design’ kill the inherent nature of a MOOC, which is its wide (initial) appeal?

      My view is that beyond appealing to those with a general interest in a topic, MOOCs are structurally weak in supporting learning at any depth, and particularly poor at supporting those with no previous knowledge of the subject, or those with difficulties in learning. So we shall see, but only if more research is done to test these assumptions (those of both the developers of MOOCs and of the critics like me).

      In the meantime, MOOCs remain a fascinating experiment.

      • Tony, the first 2 MOOCs I joined were with the infamous pair – Stephen Downes and George Siemens (LOL). The idea of a MOOC, if I recall and still pertain to, is the notion of mass distributed knowledge built, assessed, and remixed within a nebulous network of colleagues, strangers, experts, etc. I have come to learn through experience and readings that MOOCs are meant to be messy; however, it doesn’t mean they have to be that. Recommending we work within self-interest and self-formed groups was one answer to providing some structure and lessening the feeling of overwhelming terror and frustration. :0)

        I just recalled I engaged in a MOOC-like setting with Etienne Wenger and his colleagues a few years ago. Basically, a fast-paced community of practice!

        If what I described is the notion of MOOCs then I agree with you about the struggle of fitting traditional pedagogical models into it in a successful way. Perhaps MOOCs are better for informal learning or some version of a community of practice; perhaps they are about coming together, in a highly networked world, for a time to rant, test knowledge, learn, and perhaps produce something quite interesting and unexpected.

  2. Very good article. To be honest, I am a bit surprised to see such eager participation from major universities in the MOOC programs. Don’t get me wrong, it is great – but it is quite obvious that MOOCs are still trying to sort themselves out a bit. It would seem like there are too many question marks about maintaining a high degree of quality, amiable user experience, and the like.


  3. Hi everyone:
    I have been out of the country for the past 2 months, working on some projects and doing some writing. Whenever time and existing wifi conditions permit, I log on to read email and find out what is happening in the world, and especially with online education. I can only use the Brit word “gobsmacked” to express my astonishment at the continued hysteria on the part of the media regarding MOOCS, and the frantic pace of adoption by all name-brand universities in North America and some other places.

    What is going on? I’d really appreciate some insight into WHY? With little thought or research into what MOOCs entail or even represent, universities in the US and Canada are rushing headlong, screaming “Me Too!”. Count us in. We don’t know why or what or how, but ‘we want in’!

    And of course, as Tony notes, many of these new adopters are totally ignoring the history and research of online education that their own people had done or are doing over the past 2-3 decades.

    What lit the fire to their feet, suddenly? Just wondering. I am thoroughly Bemused, bewildered and bewitched.

  4. I completely agree about how obnoxious it is that institutions like Harvard are suddenly the vanguards of online learning when they conveniently ignored it for over a decade. Ostensibly liberal leaders of these institutions have finally decided to acknowledge the inevitable course of higher education only as public outrage over the failures educational institutions was becoming a daily discussion in the mainstream media. Now we have to listen to these guys like Moses descending from the mountain with some fascinating “new” ideas to teach all of us? Excuse me while I vomit in my mouth.

  5. I totally agree with you Tony, it is amazing how those media catching initiatives did not start from an online pedagogy. And I realize all too awkwardly how history is written by the winning team no matter what came before it or how history came to be in real facts. All of a sudden MOOCs are reduced to lectures online, where distance education has much more evidence on how to optimize, how to limit drop-out… even the simple yet core fact of getting the basic online pedagogy right. Amazing how some media can distort proven practice and path towards it. Thanks for your post.


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