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Topic: [ncsm-members] Harvard goes all in for online courses
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Harvard goes all in for online courses
Posted: May 20, 2014 7:57 PM
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From The Boston Globe, Sunday, May 18, 2014. See
Harvard goes all in for online courses

The stress is on production values, props, and, yes, scholarship

By Marcella Bombardieri

CAMBRIDGE - The discussion between two Harvard historians one recent
morning was a little bit Ivory Tower, a little bit Hollywood.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Andrew Gordon, both preparing to teach a
new breed of free online classes, met in the iconic Widener Library -
bequeathed to Harvard University by the family of a Titanic victim -
to discuss a topic in social history: the influence of the sewing
machine on Japan's modernization. They were surrounded not by
leather-bound volumes but by a multimillion-dollar production studio
and no fewer than five bustling staff members adjusting cameras and
microphones and ensuring the scholars made their points clearly.

The production values were taken at least as seriously as the
scholarship. As the professors discussed the international impact of
the ornate turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine on display
between them, the crew monitored three cameras and debated which
lighting source would reflect off Gordon's glasses or wash out
Ulrich's face.

When Gordon brushed his hand on his lapel, creating a tiny static
blip, they filmed a second take. When Ulrich moved a book off the
sewing machine's oak table between takes, they put it back, then
filmed her picking it up so the book would not magically disappear in
the video.

Quietly, Harvard has built what amounts to an in-house production
company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, high-end
classes that some prestigious universities are offering for free to
anyone in the world, generally without formal academic credit.
Contrary to the popular image of online classes consisting largely of
video from a camera planted at the back of the lecture hall, Harvard
is increasingly using mini-documentaries, animation, and interactive
software tools to offer a far richer product.
Related: Attracting, and keeping, online students
The endeavor, which is called HarvardX and celebrates its second
birthday this month, has two video studios, more than 30 employees,
and many freelancers - an astonishing constellation of producers,
editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even
a performance coach to help professors get comfortable in front of a

HarvardX has made about 30 classes and has some 60 more in the works.
Nearly 1.3 million people have signed uvardX courses, almost
two-thirds of them from outside the United States. (HarvardX makes
the classes, but students sign up and log in via another platform,
edX, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by Harvard and Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.)

In just two years, the MOOC has gone through a high-speed cycle of
hype and letdown, heralded as the future of higher education - maybe
even the death of the traditional campus - before being dismissed as
a fad. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up for some classes,
but few completed them, and critics questioned how an online offering
could reproduce the alchemy of a professor and students gathered
around the seminar table.

Yet, as Harvard demonstrates, universities continue to pour enormous
amounts of money and talent into creating MOOCs and building an
online infrastructure. Their aim reflects pragmatic self-interest and
soaring idealism - staying competitive with peer institutions, and
improving education for everyone, not just online learners in distant

While plenty of Harvard professors remain skeptical about the costs,
value, and even ethics of the endeavor, faculty who teach MOOCs see
great potential to enrich what they offer undergraduates on campus by
bringing elements from the online classes into regular courses.

Ulrich's online class, Tangible Things, which launches June 2, will
teach history through artifacts in Harvard's museum collections to an
expected 10,000 students. High-quality videography can bring students
closer to rare and delicate objects than is possible in an ordinary
lecture to 120 undergraduates. (Gordon, the guest star in the studio
with Ulrich, is working on a separate MOOC about Japan.)

Two professors who teach an undergraduate course on China completely
replaced in-class lectures with materials from their MOOC, to be
reviewed by the students as part of their homework. Class time is now
dedicated to discussion, and participation is being graded for the
first time - not always to students' liking.

Videos are only the beginning. HarvardX is building interactive
mapping and timeline tools and a program that allows students to post
comments inside videos uploaded by their classmates. David Cox, who
teaches a neuroscience MOOC, does his own programming to build
hands-on lessons, allowing students to manipulate settings on a
computer screen to answer questions, for example, about how neurons
work. He calls it a "choose your own adventure lecture."

Because the program offers his automated feedback tailored to
students' answers, Cox said, it offers more personalized instruction
than he can give in a lecture hall, especially when Harvard students
tend to be "mortified of asking a dumb question."

"I think the stakes here are not how we can do online education
better," Cox said. "The stakes here are how we can do education
Related: Computer coding now seen as vital job skill
Conceptualizing courses

"There is a new law against the word 'extracellularly,' " Cox gently
admonished Winston Yan, a joint MD-PhD student and one of the top
staffers for his online class, Fundamentals of Neuroscience.

Cox, Yan, and four other members of the course team had gathered at
HarvardX's headquarters in an office building behind the Harvard
Square post office. The space resembled a start-up, with communal
tables, floor-to-ceiling dry erase boards, and brightly colored
rolling chairs. Passing around containers of Thai takeout, they
reviewed the draft script Yan had written for one lesson and
discussed the array of videos, illustrations, and interactive
exercises that would go along with the script.

It was something like a TV show's writers' room. Yan made fun of
himself when he stumbled over awkward wording. Cox mused about how to
describe a scientific discovery as the detective story it was,
something he lamented rarely comes across in science classes.

And the professor said he would love to see a photo of an old
scientist with mutton chops to illustrate that detective story. The
course's producer, Nadja Oertelt, shot back that the discovery was
probably made by a woman who never got the credit.

Oertelt, who has a neuroscience degree from MIT and experience as a
documentary filmmaker, is using her film world contacts to assemble
about 20 people working on different parts of the course, whether
it's to film a brain dissection or draw one of the short animations
to keep students engaged and make a topic accessible to different
learning styles. Think: sodium and potassium ions portrayed as
hairy-chested US and British sailors mingling in a bar during Fleet
Week. Or neurotransmitters as colorful monsters on a date in a
candlelit bar.
Related: 8 great (and free!) free online courses
HarvardX courses are proposed by the professors, who set the academic
agenda. But 20-something staffers with eclectic backgrounds, like
Oertelt, are the workhorses translating the ideas into a new medium.
Oertelt, 29, said she once fell asleep flat on her face on the floor
at 4 a.m. as she and Yan raced to ready the course for its debut last
fall, which drew 58,000 registrants from 172 countries. The team is
working on a second unit to launch in late summer.

Still, professors invariably describe putting shockingly long hours
into their MOOCs. Cox, who is more involved in the production aspects
of his course than most of his fellow faculty, got released from
regular teaching duties for a year to focus on the MOOC. But many
professors have done the projects as volunteers on their own time.
Harvard is now thinking about ways to compensate them, perhaps with a
flat fee or revenue sharing.

HarvardX spends about $75,000 to $150,000 developing each new MOOC,
officials said. But the neuroscience course is so intricate that the
team is doing its own fund-raising. It used a crowdfunding website to
raise $14,000 to help some of its students around the world buy a
$200 "DIY science" kit, which allows anyone to perform a lab
experiment at home: cutting off a cockroach's leg, hooking it up to
an amplifier, and listening to its neurons firing. (The insect gets
anesthetized in ice water, and its leg grows back.)

The experiment proved so popular it has been introduced to the
Harvard campus neuroscience class that Cox co-teaches.
Related: Harvard Business enters online education fray
Unresolved questions

The setting was as spooky as they had hoped. For Shakespeare expert
Stephen Greenblatt to speak on camera about the king's ghost in
"Hamlet," the HarvardX team had booked one of the university's
grandest spaces, the gothic, wood-paneled Sanders Theatre. The night
before, producer Zachary Davis had raced to a costume shop just
before closing to get a plastic skull Greenblatt could brandish for
dramatic effect.

They had one spotlight trained on Greenblatt and little other
lighting. It was so dark, in fact, that the professor could not read
the lines from the play he wanted to discuss. A hiccup, but one
quickly solved with Davis's cellphone flashlight.

This was a test shoot, the first attempt to shape a "visual
language," as Davis called it, for Greenblatt's MOOC on Shakespeare.

Lighting aside, the several hours of taping went well. With only a
rare glance at notecards, Greenblatt spoke eloquently about the
Danish story Shakespeare borrowed from and about the religious
climate in England at the time the bard wrote. Davis reminded the
professor of a point from his outline he'd left out, while a teaching
assistant corrected a couple of lines of dialogue Greenblatt mangled.

It had taken six weeks of discussions between the professor, the
teaching assistant, Davis, and others to prepare for this day.
Greenblatt said he felt stiff on camera, but he relished the
opportunity to learn about new ways of teaching.

"The fun part of this really for me is, it's like being back in my
20s just starting out teaching and trying to figure out what works
and what doesn't work," he said. "It's not obvious the same things
you do in the classroom are the things you should be doing with a
completely different scale, different people watching it, different
incentives, and so forth."

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty
worried about the potential downsides of Harvard's foray into online
courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote
a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion
about the "costs and consequences" of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in
front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do
to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for
students' access to faculty mentoring?

"There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the
place here," Greenblatt said.

He was encouraged to dip his toe into the MOOC world by a colleague,
poetry specialist Elisa New. Earlier this year, the student
newspaper, The Crimson, reported that New asked her students on
campus to hold questions until the end of class, to make for smoother
filming for her online class.

That sparked an uproar that the cosmetics of the MOOC were
compromising the classroom, but New called it a misunderstanding, and
Harvard officials say they rarely film in on-campus classes anyway.

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and
will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs.
The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and
licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for
example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC
learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China
and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC
should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual
office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching
assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from
thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

"As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we
afford this?" he said.
Related: Harvard, MIT partner in $60m initiative on free online
Unforeseen hours of work

Before the antique sewing machine could have its star turn, the team
behind Ulrich's Tangible Things class faced a lot of decisions. Would
it film the machine by itself, or capture Ulrich introducing the
viewer to its lavish gold Sphinx decorations and baffling metal
attachments? What background color should they use in the studio?
Would black be too dark behind the black lacquered machine? Would
white look like it was selling a product on Amazon?

These were just a few of the topics of debate when Davis, the
30-year-old producer for the history MOOC as well as the Shakespeare
course, visited Ulrich in the professor's library study, accompanied
by two editor/videographers.

There was a pressing problem: The sewing machine was not working.
Davis, intent on getting it to operate for its film debut, sprang
into action, tossing his blazer aside and diving under the desk to
try to get a rubber tube back on its track. (He got it working, but
only briefly.)

Ulrich would be working into the night on her script, an inch-thick
stack of paper she brought to a taping the next morning in the second
and much more modest HarvardX studio in a converted conference room.
She was at ease in front of the camera, and only occasionally paused
to consult the voluminous script. But Davis was vigilant for the most
minor flaws, asking her to repeat passages such as one in which she
added an unnecessary "th" sound to the word "Egyptomania."

The following week, Ulrich, Davis, and the course's editor spent
several hours visiting Harvard's archeology museum, the Peabody, and
its women's history library, the Schlesinger, to film artifacts
related to Ulrich's lesson. At the end of the library visit, they
brought Ulrich back outside and filmed three takes of her walking
into the building bracing against the wind.

Hours of work - all for what Davis guessed would be 30 to 60 seconds
of footage to play along with Ulrich's narration.

Davis said MOOCs should be thought of not as an alternative to
traditional classes but as high-tech, multifaceted textbooks.

He views his work as making documentaries and telling stories - and
staying as far away from traditional lectures as possible.

"The first and most important lesson is, you are not just replicating
the classroom," he said.

He and Ulrich want to get their far-flung MOOC students involved as
well: They will be asked to choose objects from their own lives to
study, and will be able to create their own exhibitions on the
website Pinterest.

Ulrich said she got involved because she is always looking for ways
to engage with the public, and likes the idea of sharing something
for free that she thinks will be useful to museums and historical

"It's been absolutely fun, a lot of work - an incredible amount of
work. I mean I just couldn't imagine how much work," Ulrich said. She
was not warned what she was getting into, she said, because no one

"Everything's being invented,'' she said. "This really is a research
project as much as an education project, to try to figure out what
Harvard can do."
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, and
Christina Hodge of the Peabody Museum were filmed talking about a
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, was
filmed in the HarvardX studio for her class, "Tangible Things." PAT
More coverage:
* Will MOOCs help you open career doors?

* 8 great free online courses

* Can you MOOC your way through college in one year?
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at Follow
her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.

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