Online Education at Harvard – A Status Report


The effects of the pandemic teaching in the classroom were immediate and binary: given the dangers of viral transmission, classes last March were quickly adapted to Zoom, and last fall more refined versions of online pedagogy appeared ( see “School goes remote”, November-December 2020, page 29). Health precautions and the travel collapse also put an end to the extensive continuing education and in-person continuing education programs run by Harvard Business School (HBS), the Division of Continuing Education (DCE) of the Faculty of Arts. and science and operations similar to many other vocational schools, which brought much of a growing $ 500 million business to a screeching halt (see harvardmag.com/covidfylosses20).

But these title changes masked another development. Millions of people with unexpectedly free time have found themselves hungry for new distractions, including online courses that can satisfy a curiosity, broaden one’s learning, explore a new skill, or even provide the know-how and referrals for prepare for a new line of work. The result is a surge in registrations for Harvard’s various online offerings. This alone will not solve the financial damage caused by the closure of lucrative continuing education and management training courses. But growing interest suggests the wide appeal of Harvard’s teaching, its potential audience when the constraints and expenses of travel and residency courses are relaxed, and even the ways in which on-campus study programs could. to be increased in the near future.

A first indication of interest appeared at Harvard Summer School, a DCE unit, which operated entirely online. As its dean, Sandra Naddaff, reported to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) last December, enrollments in 2020 increased by more than 13%, reaching nearly 10,800, a record. Some 1,250 students came from Harvard (up from maybe about 500 in a typical year); this increase partly reflects both the cancellation of study abroad programs and various fee exemptions for some enrolled in the College. But enrollments also rose as other students sought rewarding summer college experiences – some of them, no doubt, who could not have afforded them in residency. Naddaff expects strong enrollment again this summer (still online), not least because the College offers two free four-credit courses to all students who have studied at a distance throughout the current academic year. In short, the Summer University is reinventing itself in this 150-year-old year.

DCE’s Extension School (with non-degree, undergraduate, and graduate programs) has been a pioneer in online education, but it has also made a significant transition. As of fall 2019, it offered 462 courses (358 of which incorporated distance learning, including many hybrids combining online and in-person sessions); in the pandemic fall of 2020, it had 502 offers, all conducted on a virtual basis – a huge overhaul of the program (given the end of all classes exclusively in person).

Despite the loss of these face-to-face classes, Extension School enrollment grew by over 5% to 11,685 last fall, and class enrollment grew even more vigorously, by over 8%. at 17,294. Among them were students from 25 countries new to the school’s global roster. The increase in on-demand (asynchronous) offers from seven to 81 made it easier for students to participate in distant time zones, facilitating the school’s global reach. (Preliminary data for spring 2021 shows an enrollment increase of 13% over the previous year and course enrollment up 15%.)

Nancy Coleman, who became Dean of Continuing Education in July amid the transition brought on by the pandemic, noted that the increase in enrollment in 2020 included an interest not only in professional subjects, but also in liberal arts fields. “At all levels” (even in subjects such as languages, where interest had waned): an indication of learners seeking “personal enrichment”. The Extension School has a ‘earn your way’ model, she continued: students meet the prerequisites, show they can do the job well, and then can apply for admission to degree programs. . Given the fall bulge, she said, the school has seen “more applications for the spring admissions cycle than we have ever seen before.” And with growing interest from international learners – a tempting market that the school has only pursued episodically in the past – it expects to be more intentional about such awareness: by adding sections of class at different times and offering more sessions on demand.

Having established that it can serve students with diverse interests, across a wide range of disciplines, the division / school is thinking expansively. Its mission, said Coleman, “is really to extend Harvard to students who cannot study here full time”: apparently, a global cohort. This will involve further developing online methods for effecting student-faculty and student-student interactions and connections, and exploring the interests of other Harvard schools in serving their expanding students in the same way.

Given DCE’s “incredible expertise,” she said, there are many ways to share across the university – and stretch over time, toward the holy grail of the “60’s program. years “: lifelong learning, guided by interests and continuous refinement of skills. From summer school to the Extension School range of courses and continuing education programs in vocational schools and up to retirement, Coleman said, “We are really proud to provide opportunities for everyone. the standards of life. »Courses could be offered to fill gaps where the school could offer other types of certificates; “Stackable credentials” (something less than full study programs); and more hybrid courses that include course sessions in person, at sites in Greater Boston and at other Harvard sites around the world.

Some of these companies are under study or in development, or even tested in the field. But clearly, under the pressure of the pandemic, which has required breaking down geographic boundaries and time zones to expand teaching and learning, the DCE has accelerated its plans and broadened their reach.

The ultimate interest-driven learning experience, of course, is the kind of free online courses originally called MOOCs (Open Massive Online Courses), offered since 2012 on edX (jointly unveiled by MIT and Harvard) and peer platforms. And how has the pandemic affected HarvardX? Enrollment in Crimson courses on edX has grown from just under 1.9 million in 2019 to almost 9.6 million in 2020. As with DCE, interest has spanned the entire spectrum, from the humanities to the humanities. and from science to business. Prior to 2020, HarvardX reports, only three courses attracted enrollments of 80,000 or more; last year, 25 did so, from “Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies” and “Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasive Writing and Public Speaking” to “Mechanical Venting for COVID-19 “.

Although comparable data for the paying cohort is not published, it has grown by over 400%, again, with interest in all disciplines and professions. (In exchange for a fee, learners can get a ‘verified certificate’ of course completion: $ 199 for the very popular ‘Introduction to Computing’, $ 169 for ‘Rhetoric’, etc.) Obviously, this could become a major source of income on a large scale, for an operation which itself depended mainly on philanthropic support and University funds. (edX announced on December 15 that on its platform – with 160 partner institutions – annual course registrations increased by 29 million in 2020, to 110 million, with the number of new users up 161%, to 35 million individuals, who collectively received some 2.1 million certificates. Combined with its corporate clients, who pay for in-company training, edX, which keeps a watchful eye on business competitors, can generate more important.)

Overtime, these burgeoning online extensions of Harvard education can also confer reciprocal lessons on campus education. During Teaching in Unprecedented Times, a January showcase on Fall 2020 developments presented by the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning Advances, HBS New Dean Srikant Datar presented interesting prospects. Classes can be delivered in chunks, for example: a budding entrepreneur might take lessons on how to assess a market, then apply those skills, then come back for instructions on how to scale their fledgling business – learn and apply immediately in an interactive cycle, at whatever stage of its life or commercial development it is. Likewise, the HBS courses at Allston could allow former student practitioners to enter virtually – and their participation in case discussions could provide immediate insight to MBA applicants sitting in the learning theaters.

This kind of two-way innovation, with an improvement Residential education, was a strategic focus for Harvard’s $ 30 million edX investment. Ironically, it may have taken a pandemic, the disruption of in-person learning, and a global appetite for online courses to start bringing this idea to Harvard’s classes in the post-pandemic future.


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