Harvard Reaching Out to Alumni to Help Run MOOC

Although many alumni of prestigious – and not so prestigious – schools have gotten used to being hit up for donations from time to time, Harvard University has its hand out for something else this week: their graduates' time. In an appeal sent out this Monday, the school asks those with the requisite knowledge to volunteer to serve as mentors and guides for its free online course called The Ancient Greek Hero.

The course is being offered for free through Harvard's online education initiative edX. Since the class is based on one regularly offered to its traditional students, Harvard reached out to those who have taken it over the course of their own studies and asked them to take part in the online version and guide students through the curriculum by answering questions and moderating discussions.

Since the course was first offered as the Concepts of the Ancient Greek Hero in 1970s by Professor Gregory Nagy, it has drawn over 10,000 students some of whom could maybe be persuaded to share their knowledge with people all over the world.

The online version, which began last week and will run through late June, has 27,000 students enrolled. Its syllabus includes Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey," dialogues by Plato, poetry by Sappho and other works.

"I'm 70, and frankly, at my age, to reach more students in one course than I have in decades is astonishing, and I love it," Dr. Nagy said.

Getting as many of the students registered for MOOCs as possible to participate in the activities surrounding the course content could be the key to increasing the rather abysmal completion rates of free online courses. This could prove vital to advancing the idea that massive online open courses are the solution to many of the ills plaguing higher education today.

The role of the monitors will be to keep the discussion on the course forums from – in the words of Claudia Filos, the editor of content and social media for the class – going off the rails. If enough people work to keep the conversation on course, by asking the right questions or shutting down extraneous debates, it would help a lot in this regard.

About 10 of Dr. Nagy's former teaching fellows in the class will direct discussions, with help from a larger, still-undetermined number of former students. Both groups will work unpaid; the e-mail to alumni said the work would require three to five hours a week. About a dozen recent former students were recruited before Monday's e-mail was sent, Ms. Filos said. Those who express interest will be screened, "and they have to be brought up to speed on the material," she said.

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