Harvard MOOCs Up Ante on Production Quality

Harvard University, ever an innovative giant among schools of higher education, has taken the massive open online course (MOOC) format and run with it.

In The Boston Globe, Marcella Bombardieri describes a scene in the school’s iconic Widener Library, where Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Andrew Gordon are discussing a new twist on the free online course paradigm.  It’s called HarvardX, a program begun two years ago, that films professors who are creating lessons that act as an adjunct to their coursework.   The catch is, the production value is equally proportioned to the subject matter.  The underproduced in-class lecture being filmed by a camera at the back of the lecture hall is being updated, in a big way.

Two video studios, 30 employees, producers, editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even a performance coach, make HarvardX a far cry from a talking head sort of online class.

The Harvard idea is to produce excellent videos, on subject matters that might be difficult to pull off in a lecture hall or class.  Then, to bring these videos into the class for enrichment purposes.  An example is Ulrich’s online class, “Tangible Things”.

[My videos] 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.)

Other special traits of these Smithsonian-worthy videos are: interactive mapping, timeline tools, manipulation of settings on a computer screen to answer questions, and:

… 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.)

Still, the costs and possible consequences are large.  They range from wondering if a cash-strapped college might use these MOOCs to replicate classroom teaching, to finding ways to pay for this expensive project without detracting from Harvard’s campus needs.

On another page of Harvard’s journal of outstanding endeavors, physics professor, Eric Mazur, has been given the Minerva Prize, a new award recognizing a faculty member who has exhibited “extraordinary innovation” in teaching, according to Matt Rocheleau of The Boston Globe.   Mazur, a prominent scientist, received the award and $500,000 cash prize for the teaching method he created two decades ago called “peer instruction”.  As the name implies, when a student does not understand a conceptual question, he can team up with classmates to quickly grasp concepts which have eluded him.

On yet another topic concerning Harvard and innovation, being enrolled in Harvard is not an inexpensive activity, so why is Harvard beginning a capital campaign to the tune of $1 billion?   Besides, Harvard is the richest and most heavily-endowed school in the world.  CNN Money reporter, John A. Byrne says that a video of Harvard Business School’s outstanding professor, Clay Christensen, explains that the money will finance:

  • Student financial aid
  • Faculty research
  • Globalization
  • Curricular innovation
  • Enhancements to the school’s residential campus
Not only does Harvard have extremely influential leaders in educational, business, and financial sector, it also has graduates who forgo the big salaries to start in socially redeeming fields, like non-profits and  health-care.  The school wants to allow students who may not have otherwise been able to enroll the funding necessary to do so.
Harvard Business Sch0ol Dean Nitin Nohria commented on the innovation that has made Harvard Business School great.

“What truly distinguishes Harvard Business School is our capacity to continually innovate,” said Nohria in a statement. “We see a challenge or an opportunity and we can respond quickly but thoughtfully to develop a novel solution. This is what led to the launch of the MBA degree, the first management case study in 1912, and the retraining programs that ultimately became Executive Education after World War II.”

The campaign, Nohria added, will emphasize the importance of flexible funding to support the school for years to come.

05 27, 2014