From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, May 10, 2013. See
Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard
By Dan Berrett
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244