Media Day at HarvardX

Open thoughts.

August 2, 2015

“You didn’t get the memo?”

edX CEO Anant Agarwal gestured to himself and then to me. It took a few moments, but the participants attending Media Day at HarvardX saw that our attire – blue blazer with brass buttons, a relaxed blue pinstriped Oxford (sans tie) and gray khakis – matched.

Call it summer casual style in academia, or at least at Harvard.

Held on July 21st, Media Day at HarvardX brought together local reporters, internal media, colleagues from edX and MITx, and others interested in, well, what was new.

Everyone convened around what we at HarvardX call ‘the long table’ – the same table where just about every Friday we hold joint research events with our colleagues at MIT (and beyond) and one that is open to the even more open office. The setup typifies the vibe of the place. Agarwal remarked on the DayGlo wall colors, writable wall surfaces, the in-house production studio, moveable furniture, and the splashy chalkboard mural hand drawn by one of the staff.

In addition to showing off the space, the point was to share experiences about the MOOC- and post-MOOC era, and hint at the surely to-be-named post-post-MOOC period.

The assembled cast of presenters, in addition to the edX CEO, included Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School; Sheryl Barnes, new to MIT as program manager for digital learning in residential education, but not to academia (with prior stints at Tufts and Harvard); Rebecca Petersen, senior research manager at HarvardX; and Kyle Courtney, whose role could be best summed up as copyright czar for Harvard.

Agarwal set the stage by echoing comments Harvard Provost Alan Garber made at the edX 3rd birthday party: Namely, that we (and by we, the collective edX family of partners and collaborators) have stayed firm to the original principles of the endeavor.

New platform features, like learner cohorts, and entirely novel endeavors, like DavidsonNext, as well as partnerships such as the Teaching Accessibility initiative, all exemplify that mission.

There is something magical when what might strike some as mere talking points (‘we believe…’) are instantiated and backed-up by activity. To wit, Agarwal’s energy remained as big and vibrant as it was during the so-called disruption days of online learning, but it was channeled and more nuanced, as he talked about the ways edX intends to reach more and more specific audiences.

“We need to get everyone into the tent!” he declared.

Of those MOOC fans already inside, Charles Fried, who wrapped v1 of his ContractsX course about six months ago, said he was “utterly mystified” by their high-level of engagement. His HarvardX course, featuring animated case studies on contact law, was designed for “anyone interested in one of the most fundamental human relationships, the contract, and definitely not for lawyers and especially not for law students.”

Fried has taught at Harvard since the 1960s and has never experienced anything quite like teaching through edX, calling the entire process “utterly marvelous.” He hinted that he almost doesn’t want to know why 20,000 students signed up and about 20% of them completed his course (“one of the highest completion rates I have been told of any MOOC”). I suspect those of who know Fried from his MOOC and for those in the room listening to him revel in a few example cases, would agree that his dynamic presence and passion might be the draw that not only gets learners inside the tent but keeps them enraptured.

Sheryl Barnes, by contrast, spoke of what could be called a more captive audience –currently enrolled MIT students. More than 85% of MIT’s campus students use the edX platform as part of their coursework. Many of them take the same foundational physics course run on one of their many instances of Open edX, but more than 100 other classes have used it as well.

In addition to this impressive adoption by MIT faculty, Barnes reported a surprisingly high level of student satisfaction as well, based on a  survey from the first year Physics class which revealed that “95% of our students love the platform and the experience. That stat reveals one aspect of the online learning experience that’s more popular than pizza – than pizza! I don’t know of anything more popular than pizza on our campus.”

The ability for students to receive instant feedback on problem sets, review past content, and have a more immediate sense of how they are doing in a challenging course, has made the combination of traditional and online teaching a big hit. Her challenge now is to develop more systematic efforts to understand broader trends, and to share out examples of faculty efforts to date all while not stifling faculty innovation and hacker culture.

Stats and data were a good segue into Rebecca Petersen’s remarks. The HarvardX research manager (and a former edXer), put the MOOC-fueled learning sciences fields into context, citing, no surprise, numbers. When the first MOOCs were launched in Canada around 2007/8, there were two related research papers that mentioned the now ubiquitous term.

Today, there are nearly 600 publications that reference MOOCs, she said to a collective gasp of the attendees. Part of that growth is tied to the breadth of those doing the research, from computer scientists to psychologists to sociologists, studying MOOCs.

"There is no one discipline credited for leading this emerging body of work; it is truly a multidisciplinary effort.”

Looking ahead, she was excited by the potential insights made possible by the sheer number and diversity of learners, as MOOCs, to paraphrase Harvard faculty member and HarvardX research chair Andrew Ho, “are like no classroom on earth.”

Petersen noted a  forthcoming qualitative meta-analysis by George Veletsianos of Royal Rhodes University that will go one step further. He is conducting the largest series of learner interview studies in open courses ever undertaken to “better understand open courses and their learners (and their successes and their failures). How do these people experience open courses? Why do they choose to participate in these courses and what influences there choices?”

Such findings might dampen Fried’s mystification, but she was optimistic that it would not explain everything, but rather help make learning better online and on-campus.

Kyle Courtney ended the short chats by talking about copyright, a subject I said at the start did seem the most sexy or compelling. And yet, Courtney explained that MOOCs and other forms of open online learning all owe their existence to “the deeply important principle of transformative use,” or the ability to use various copyrighted materials in the service of education.

Moreover, MOOCs are pushing this principle to the extreme, as how else can an open online course on modern art or popular music be taught without the ability to use works by Picasso or The Beatles. Broadly, the trend of opening up classrooms to the world parallels the way scholarship is moving; Courtney talked about his other role as a key player in DASH, or Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, an effort that rivals the massive numbers associated with MOOCs, “with over 5.6 million free downloads of scholarly research articles authored by our faculty.”


Upon reflection of the talks and the subsequent conversations that bubbled up, many there were struck by an emerging theme: How MOOCs (as wider metaphor innovations in learning) are influencing not only campus life (illustrated by Fried and Barnes), but are, at the same time, influencing the broader education and research space (showcased by Petersen, Courtney, and Agarwal).

At an online summit held by the presidents of Harvard and MIT two years ago, Agarwal said he saw the goal of edX to “to rise all boats.”

From smaller liberal arts colleges like Davidson College to emerging global institutions like Delft University of Technology to established places Harvard, MIT and Stanford, the current does seem to be buoyant.

He and Petersen both talked about the 'edX Diaspora,' as those who have worked as part of the extended edX family and have gone on to other leadership roles. Justin Reich started at HarvardX and is now at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning heading up a new initiative to educate educators about and with new technologies. Katie Vale, there in the early days of HarvardX, went to Harvard’s School of Public Health to develop a global hybrid master’s degreeand is now off to Bates College as a VP.

Researcher Dan Seaton went from MIT/MITx to Davidson College to run the AP program mentioned earlier. Romy Ruukel started at edX and is now heading up a digital learning effort at Boston University.

And beyond just jumping institutions, Courtney said passing that he was flying out to California to advise their higher ed leadership about scholarship and transformative use in the MOOC-era. A local high school teacher in attendance who had used HarvardX poetry MOOCs in her classroom, plans to take that approach her new teaching gig in another state.

In addition to influencing from the inside out, an integrative/collaborative force is at play. There’s the edX consortium itself, dedicated to sharing best practice. The seminal Year 1 & 2 MOOC learner reports from the collaborative MITx and HarvardX team have provided scaffolding for the growing field of online learning research Petersen talked about. edX, Harvard, and MIT all host various summits, conferences, webinars on innovations in learning. Most of note is the open edX platform, always being iterated and improved, and run by companies, colleges, and even countries.

Finally, take Media Day itself, attracting internal and external media (along with others in the innovative learning space) to have candid conversations, hang out, and foster community (and of course, surface big questions).

The words of the ever-quotable Justin Reich (upon his move from Harvard to MIT) come to mind: “I hope that we’ve earned the trust of fellow researchers, policymakers, course developers, and the media as researchers committed to investigating the MOOC phenomenon without fear or favor.”

Given the openness and candor that were on display at Media Day, people do seems to be getting that memo.

Michael Patrick Rutter is Communications Director for the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University.



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