Published on 2015/07/07

MOOCs Are Taking Higher Education to Brand New Heights

Co-Written with Rob Lue | Faculty Director of HarvardX, Harvard University and Richard Menschel | Faculty Director of the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University

The EvoLLLution | MOOCs Are Taking Higher Education to Brand New Heights
While truly high-quality MOOCs can be a challenge to create, they provide invaluable data to institutions focused on learner tendencies that have the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning.

Making high-quality programming available to those with the least capacity to enroll in a traditional higher education institution was one of the goals of the open courseware movement, but MOOCs have taken this to a whole new level. Beyond simply providing this programming for globally distributed students in need of learning opportunities, these courses have provided a platform for institutions to truly reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching methods and to learn about the tendencies of today’s students. In this interview, Anant Agarwal, Rob Lue and Richard Menschel reflect on the benefits and challenges of creating MOOCs, and share their thoughts on where the MOOC movement is going.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do institutions benefit from making their content available, for free, on such a wide scale?

Rob Lue and Richard Menschel (RL/RM): From the perspective of Harvard, cofounding the open learning platform, edX, with MIT is perfectly aligned with our institutional mission of disseminating knowledge to the world. The development of high-quality online learning content is a natural extension of what we already do, with technology now allowing us to open up our classrooms in ways and to a degree that were not possible before. Moreover, as our content is interactive and designed to foster learning communities, the flow of knowledge is not simply one way. We are learning a great deal from our learners. As we have a significant research effort, opening up our content to millions of learners around the world also enables us to advance the science of learning: understanding how individuals from different backgrounds engage with the material and learn. It also means there are opportunities for our faculty and residential students to gain wider perspectives on topics like ethics, history, and global health. By extension, MOOCs and other open online learning experiences are a way for our faculty to promote their own intellectual perspectives and scholarship.

Our commitment to open learning also allows us to redefine the context and modes of education that are possible. Learning does not only happen in a classroom or end after a four-year college degree. HarvardX is a particularly powerful way for us to promote lifelong learning, not only to our alumni but also to interested learners all around the world—in a time and place that they choose. We also know that many teachers are taking our MOOCs, perhaps to help them teach by allowing them to remix or re-use the material, or simply being inspired by how our faculty approach material. That we are helping teachers to teach is a profound contribution to global learning.

Building MOOCs and other online learning experiences is also a way for our faculty to experiment with their pedagogy, discover best practices and blend digital resources with in-person instruction on campus. The opportunity to reimagine how a topic might be taught online has catalyzed both discussion of and experimentation in new ways of teaching on campus. Every HarvardX project begins with a collaborative development process that includes faculty, instructional specialists and media technologists that seeks to push the envelope when it comes to how a particular idea or concept can be presented. The collaboration is also intergenerational in that faculty, graduate students and undergraduates participate in the development process, creating new opportunities for learning through the very process of co-developing instructional materials. Thus, everything our faculty do online, ideally, enriches teaching and learning on campus.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges colleges and universities face when trying to make high-quality content openly available online?

RL/RM: One of the major challenges faced by HarvardX has been developing ways to meet the demand from our faculty to explore online learning experiences. Faculty are increasingly interested in the opportunities presented by online learning to experiment with pedagogy, transform what they can do in the classroom, and develop new avenues to communicate with the wider world. Given our commitment to a high quality learning experience that represents creative new ways to teach online, we do not have the capacity to meet the demand. This challenge is exacerbated by HarvardX being a university-wide initiative that must also respond to faculty interest from across twelve schools. We are therefore exploring ways of staging the development process and collaborating closely with teaching and learning centers on campus as well as academic IT to better meet faculty demand.

The generation of large quantities of online educational content presents new challenges in maintaining version control and appropriately tagged and discoverable archiving systems. This need is a critical one that we are addressing given our commitment to at least three versions of every HarvardX project, and our long-standing interest in the re-use of modular content. The rigorous tracking of individual components, grouping them, and connecting them with relevant research on their efficacy is a necessary for us to effectively use research data to improve each MOOC and smaller learning experience.

Another ongoing challenge faced by institutions is the development of more effective ways to sustain learner engagement and assess learning in an online environment. How can the community engagement of course material that is part and parcel of a successful on-campus course be achieved with a group that is distributed all over the world? How can we assess mastery and higher order learning using online assessments at scale? These related challenges are at the heart of the online learning experience, and drive our explorations of new ways to scale small-group discussion in cohorts as well as the development of more sophisticated assessment types that can be deployed on the platform.

Evo: How do organizations like edX help institutions overcome these obstacles?

Anant Agarwal (AA): At edX, we continue to evolve our learning platform to meet the needs of our learners and partners. We provide instructors with analytics and insights into their student demographics as well as their learners’ progress. We also offer a course, Blended Learning with edX, to all teachers who are interested in creating blended-learning courses.

The founding goals of edX were to increase access to high-quality education, to improve teaching and learning online and on campus, and to conduct research into how students learn. To achieve our third goal—learn more about learning—we will continue to create and evolve our online learning tools, features and platform to help our university partners offer quality content and education through edX.

Evo: What kinds of tools does edX use to manage the wide array of students visiting the site and courses available on the site?

AA: EdX has more than 4 million learners from every country in the world. Currently, we offer six languages on the edX platform and we look forward to growing our languages to welcome even more learners around the world. And, with more than 500 courses available to learners in subjects ranging from computer science to engineering, languages, history, art, business, science and more, we are continuing to work with our partners to offer even more courses to meet the wide range of interests of our learners. Additionally, we’ve enabled search from our homepage, so learners can search for specific topics, institutions or subject matters to easily find their perfect course.

Evo: Looking to the future, what kinds of changes could edX make to create an even more seamless and engaging experience for both students and partner institutions?

AA: Up to now, quality education—and in some cases, any higher education at all—has been the privilege of the few. We see MOOCs as the great democratizer, and believe that in the future, economics, social status, gender or geography will not determine a student’s access to education or opportunity for success. We also envision a continuous education system—one that doesn’t stop after four years of college. Our vision for the future is to continue to work with universities, institutions, faculty, researchers, and students to innovate and transform education, to make education accessible to everyone, and to improve on-campus learning through research.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Delivering MOOCs allows universities to gain huge amounts of data on learner tendencies that can revolutionize the science of teaching and learning.
  • One of the most significant challenges institutions face from trying to make programming available through MOOCs is sustaining learner engagement and assess outcomes.

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