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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, May 10, 2013. See http://chronicle.com/article/Debate-Over-MOOCs-Reaches/139179/?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en
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Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard

By Dan Berrett

Cambridge, Mass.

Ambivalence about MOOCs, which has increasingly been voiced on campuses across the country, is also being heard among faculty members at Harvard University.

While the level of unease expressed at Harvard, during a conference on Wednesday and in other venues, is not as unified or oppositional as recent statements made at American, Duke, and San Jose State Universities, it is all the more notable for arising among the faculty of an institution that has invested $30-million in a nonprofit organization that produces massive open online courses.

At Wednesday's forum, a conference on teaching and learning, several speakers touted the virtues of in-person, physically centered education. The gathering also served as an implicit and, at times, explicit pedagogical counterargument to the rise of MOOCs.

EdX, the nonprofit MOOC provider founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was "the elephant in the room," Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, said after her remarks at the meeting of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

The initiative, which is supported by a $40-million gift from two benefactors, Gustave M. and Rita E. Hauser, is intended to encourage faculty members to experiment and improve the quality of teaching and learning at Harvard. While some projects supported by the grant feature technology, none are MOOCs.

Speakers at the conference included faculty members from Harvard and elsewhere, many of them experts in what the day's organizers framed as the "science" of learning and the "art" of teaching-which, when combined, result in something the speakers said is seldom realized on any campus: an excellent education.

"Everyone wants to produce it. Everyone wants to consume it," said Frances X. Frei, a professor of service management at Harvard Business School. "Yet it's rare."

For instance, a frequently cited educational goal like critical thinking is difficult to truly instill in students, said Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

When the term refers to developing students' ability to understand what he called the "deep structure" of an idea and apply it elsewhere, the task can be particularly labor intensive: Students often need more than a semester to learn the deep structure of an idea in a discipline, he said.

Speaking Up for MOOCs

MOOCs did have their admirers at the conference.

EdX courses are flexible and modular, said Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard's School of Public Health. They allow students to demonstrate their competency with specific areas of knowledge in ways that traditional courses often do not, and they give far more students an opportunity to learn from Harvard faculty members than would otherwise be able to.

At one time, a blackboard was an innovation, he noted. Progress occurs when new innovations come along that build and improve on past ones.

"There's always a risk of failing," said Dr. Frenk. "But I think the risk of standing still is greater."

Some speakers, like Ms. Roberts, extolled traditionalist virtues like patience. She described an exercise that she gives her students to cultivate their ability to critically analyze images: They must visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and spend three hours looking at the painting "Boy With a Squirrel," by John Singleton Copley.

The exercise, she said, is intended to break students of their habitual distractedness and thirst for immediate gratification.

She also raised doubts about the educational value of teaching a course virtually to thousands of students. Pressure to create and adopt MOOCs was greater than the evidence of the effectiveness of this mode of teaching, she added.

"I'm a passionate believer in the traditional lecture," Ms. Roberts said. "Students won't pay attention to a videotape of a lecture they watch on a computer in their dorm room."

Andrew Ho, an associate professor of education and chair of the research committee for HarvardX, the unit responsible for Harvard's content on edX, appeared on the same panel as Ms. Roberts. He said that she was correct to be skeptical and that her critiques offered all the more reason for the courses to be researched empirically.

Ms. Roberts is not the only skeptic. Members of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences said at a meeting on Tuesday that they had not been sufficiently consulted in developing HarvardX and that its research base was thin, according to an account in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

A campus-climate survey administered during the spring semester asked faculty members about their interest in innovative teaching and in participating in edX, with possible responses ranging from "not interested" to "extremely interested." Preliminary analyses suggest that faculty members are far more interested in innovative teaching methods than in delivering their courses via edX, according to a member of the institutional-research department.

Limited Data on What Works

While a storm of media interest has greeted MOOCs, there still have not been very many offered through HarvardX. Two such courses have been completed and analyzed, and the data for four others will be assessed this summer. Eventually, a Harvard spokesman said, a MOOC developed by the university will come to be seen as another learning tool that a faculty member at an institution can use or ignore, much like a textbook written by a Harvard professor.

MOOCs are also still young, advocates say. Education researchers like Mr. Ho will analyze the results of Harvard's MOOCs to see what works and what does not.

Besides, many speakers noted, evidence has rarely been established that the "aha moments" that faculty treasure in their classrooms-in which students seem to suddenly grasp a concept-actually occur.

Teaching online is "enabling us to rethink what we do on our campus," said Alan M. Garber, Harvard's provost. HarvardX courses are being used to complement existing offerings, to flip courses and to make them more dynamic.

And yet, he added, "in the world of the future, I don't see the small seminar disappearing."

While such an assurance may placate Harvard students, it does not resolve broader concerns about MOOCs' unintended consequences that have been raised by the philosophy faculty at San Jose State and were echoed on Wednesday by Nannerl O. Keohane, who also spoke at the conference.

As higher education seeks to change and adapt, it is important to preserve its best aspects, said Ms. Keohane, who is president emerita of Duke University and Wellesley College, and a visiting professor at Princeton. The college-going experience should be centered in a physical place where students and faculty members feel they belong to an institution that has transmitted knowledge for generations, she said.

Even more vital, said Ms. Keohane, is that access to higher education be broadly preserved.

The worry, she said, is that online education and MOOCs will be relegated to the "less fortunate," while the top 5 percent of the population will have the opportunity to attend places like Harvard or Princeton.

Eventually, she suggested, such institutions could again become bastions of a demographic elite, as they were in the 19th century.
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-- 
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
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