Thoughtful Experiment: HarvardX for Alumni Rethinks Engagement in the MOOC Era

by Anne Cushing, Erin Mackey Kistler, and Philip Lovejoy

In the spring of 2014 HarvardX and the Harvard Alumni Association launched HarvardX for Alumni.

If HarvardX is new to you, as it was to many of our alumni, it is a University-wide strategic initiative to enable our faculty to build and create online learning experiences that would also transform residential learning and enable groundbreaking research in online pedagogies. Much of the HarvardX online offerings are distributed by edX, the Harvard and MIT founded MOOC platform.

The idea behind the prototype HarvardX program for alumni came by way of a brainstorm by Robert Lue, faculty director for HarvardX. An alumnus himself, Lue had a longstanding desire to find a way to reconnect graduates to the intellectual bedrock of the University.

Or in his words, “We always knew that we could do something special with HarvardX and alumni … How could we, in essence, bring Harvard to them wherever they are?”

Lue also was intrigued by the “whenever axis,” dubbing the project “Harvard Forever,” a phrase The Crimson, the Harvard undergraduate newspaper spun into the "Harvard Class of Forever.”

Why should the rich community of learning that so many alumni cherish end with graduation? Indeed, this was an opportunity to redefine the idea of life-long learning as a life-long relationship with Harvard.

To meet his vision, the resulting HarvardX for Alumni, a 4-month ‘beta’ that blended online and in-person experiences, took advantage of new learning technologies to engage alumni who wanted to keep on learning---together---thereby growing and evolving their personal networks.

Over this past summer we had the time to crunch the data, reflect, and share our observations on the experimental endeavor. With nearly 15,000 alumni (over 20,000 when guests are included) registrations via Harvard’s alumni website and over 10,000 (12,000 with guests) completed enrollments (those who went on to take the course) on the edX platform, HarvardX for Alumni is one of the largest centralized Harvard alumni programs, in terms of participation, to date.

Moreover, in addition to the online elements, HarvardX for Alumni also took advantage of the Harvard club network (essentially facilitating meet-ups so alumni could watch and discuss courses together in real time) and sent the faculty involved to select clubs for in-person talks.

This first expression of the program was an important experiment: we presented it to our alumni, clubs, and internal stakeholders as a way to explore, together, how to think about digital engagement.

Goals for Engagement … and Beyond
HarvardX for Alumni, an open online learning experience, featured curated content from seven existing HarvardX classes alongside brand-new faculty conversations orchestrated by Lue. (Full details of the program and trailer video can be seen here.).

In addition to creating a new way for alumni to engage with and share the intellectual riches of the University while building and strengthening connections to Harvard and each other, a second goal was to use HarvardX for Alumni to highlight Harvard’s renewed commitment to innovative teaching and learning. Many had heard about edX or HarvardX, or the term MOOC, but had not experienced new forms of online learning directly.

Most important, the project presented an opportunity to respond to what we had been hearing from alumni in surveys (in particular one from 2012):

  • Events featuring faculty are especially appealing to alumni.
  • Research findings are of particular interest to alumni.
  • Alumni value lifelong learning, but find access to ongoing education through Harvard limited.
  • Alumni demonstrate high levels of interest in current Harvard scholarship.
  • Alumni consistently communicate a desire for access to more ongoing learning opportunities that would connect them to the positive academic experiences they had as students.

When HarvardX for Alumni became public, we immediately heard stories from our colleagues that they too had been hearing similar things from their communities---and that they would be watching (or if they were Harvard alumni, signing up themselves.)

Initial Reception and Response
The HarvardX for Alumni concept was greeted with great enthusiasm from the alumni community. Registration for the program exceeded our expectations, demonstrating that the desire to access Harvard’s current faculty and scholarship is strong within the alumni community (reflecting our research results). The most common response for participating was the desire to gain new knowledge and continue education.

In turn, the registration process itself drove 20-30% of all traffic to Harvard’s alumni site during the February to March pre-launch marketing period. Given the response logs on the Help Desk, this process motivated thousands of alumni to log in to the site for the first time in a long time.

That was unexpected, but welcome, as alumni can also use the site to update profile information, consume story content, or search the alumni directory, among other activities. Through our email marketing and surveys related to HarvardX for Alumni, we were able to collect extensive data on this segment of the alumni population, information that will be useful to us as we continue to deliver on our engagement goals.

That said, response to the online learning experiment among the alumni community was mixed, and quantitative and qualitative feedback speaks to opportunities for refinement. One particular advantage of using a platform like edX was the ability to monitor in “real time” what seemed to be working and not working in terms of content and features. Our alumni did not hesitate to be frank on discussion forums about what they liked or did not like.  In possible future iterations of the program that are under consideration right now, some substantial changes may be needed to foster long-term success.

Findings & Lessons Learned

Tech support is essential… First and foremost, registration to an online learning experience has to be seamless and easy. Ideally, we wanted to either auto-enroll alumni or integrate their alumni accounts with the edX platform but that proved to be difficult in the time available to launch the course.

To wit, the HAA Help Desk addressed over 4,300 inquiries via phone and email during the course of the program; the most common questions touched upon username/password issues. This is a significant increase over our typical programming. The amount of support required for this effort was substantial and was impacted by the dual nature of the registration process. That said, this information also illustrates the strong initial interest in the program and in many cases, the differing levels of familiarity with technology.

HarvardX staff member remarked that she likely helped dozens of alumni get up-to-speed on the modern Internet, as the program itself motivated them to engage online with entirely new technologies.

Learning opportunities appeal to everyone…  Alumni across every Harvard school and age range registered for HarvardX for Alumni, with older alumni more likely to complete their enrollment by setting up an edX account. While U.S. alumni represented the majority of registrants, international alumni from 63 countries also joined.

Harvard College and Harvard Business School alumni were the most common registrants, making up 39% and 13% of enrollees, respectively, while Radcliffe alumnae were most likely to complete their enrollment, at a rate of 78%. Men were slightly more likely to register and enroll than women, but the difference was modest.

The extensive demographic data we have collected from this program will inform strategy as we continue to develop communications and programming targeted to different alumni populations.

The MOOC engagement dip persists… HarvardX for Alumni mirrored other HarvardX courses (and MOOCs more broadly) with declining engagement over time. That said, unlike a typical HarvardX course, there were clear upticks around new class launches throughout the program, signaling an interest in engaging with the course even months after launch.

“I haven’t had the time” was the most common survey response for those registrants who had not participated. The program captured a relatively engaged segment of the alumni population as, on average, both enrolled and unenrolled alumni reported slightly higher satisfaction than those in a baseline study engagement conducted in 2012, and indicated an increased sense of connection to Harvard at the conclusion of the program.  

Marketing matters… There was a sustained marketing program throughout the duration of the project from the initial registration in early February through the launch of the last class in June. Emails drove the majority of the 20,000+ registrations on the alumni site as well as the initial push to move registrants on to the edX platform.

After launch, a variety of segmented emails (sent only to registrants) pushed nearly 3,000 additional edX enrollments. Although participants were receiving up to 4 emails a week, email fatigue was light with very low opt-out rates and the majority of survey respondents reporting they received “just the right amount” of program email.

Alumni Feedback
Alumni responses to HarvardX for Alumni were mixed, ranging from the positive “a great forum for alumni to participate in some engaging discussions,” to the constructive “[having only a portion of the course and original faculty interviews about its intellectual genesis] really doesn't give any sense of what the full course is like, for us to determine whether we might like to pursue it.”

When asked “how likely are you to recommend HarvardX for Alumni to a friend or classmate?” on the post-event survey 40% of respondents were “not at all likely” to recommend, 21% were “somewhat likely,” and 39% were “extremely likely.”

This feedback suggests that roughly equal numbers of alumni were satisfied as were dissatisfied with the current iteration of HarvardX for Alumni. This likely reflects very different expectations across our alumni population and speaks to the need to understand what these different cohorts hope to achieve in the program. The general consensus by alumni throughout the run of the program was a call for more in-depth content---or, the ability to take entire courses as a cohort. From our perspective, as this was an experimental program, we were not surprised by these findings.

In response to this, the HarvardX team was able to provide additional video content for several of the segments while they were running, which did help minimize concerns later in the course. HarvardX for Alumni did reveal the challenges of modularizing online learning content and mixing and matching various interactive elements, suggesting that short-form learning activities might be better built from the ground-up.

Some participants also reported finding the edX platform, especially the discussion boards, to require a learning curve, which may have impacted the amount of discussion that occurred. In the midpoint and post-event surveys, participants stated they would prefer a full course devoted to a single topic (41%) and more videos in general (34%).

At the same time, club participation in the program was robust. Twenty-eight Harvard Clubs hosted, or pledged to host, a discussion group on a HarvardX for Alumni topic or segment. A number of Clubs, including Houston, Minnesota, Shanghai, Chicago, and Cape Cod, hosted more than one discussion. Five Clubs also brought in faculty speakers from the program.

In tandem with HarvardX, we developed a discussion guide for Club hosts and held monthly conference calls to review questions and provide ideas about discussion groups. Responses from Club discussions reflected what was found online, with fuller classes being strongly preferred above others and a general call for more content.

To close the program, faculty whose material was featured, namely David Malan, Elisa New, and Peter Bol, also participated in a faculty forum for reunion attendees this past May, which was well attended and regarded. The forum was filmed and we promoted this video to all the course participants.

Rethinking What’s Next
You may have found, as we did, that the above is a lot to digest. Thus, we are now considering where to go next---but informed by alumni data and perceptions in a way we’ve never had before. It will help us define not just the future for HarvardX for Alumni and related programs, but our digital engagement strategy writ large.

As our colleagues at HarvardX told us, the process of building a MOOC, perceptual changes by faculty developing and running them, and the unexpected use of open content by learners, is as, if not more, important than the end product itself (the online learning experience.)

At the start of 2015, we are now thinking about how else we might take advantage of online learning programing (from free to paid) to enhance alumni engagement. We are wondering about whether cohorting (grouping alumni into existing courses together rather than running separate courses) might be a viable solution.

In fact, HarvardX for Alumni was a catalyst at our fall HAA board meeting, as the ongoing experiment provides such an amazing opportunity to have our alumni leadership work with us to shape online and other forms of participation.

Together, we can figure out how we might meet strong alumni interest by better highlighting the many opportunities for lifelong learning that Harvard offers (online, on-campus, and hybrid) and finding ways to use existing networks and organizations like our clubs as satellite classrooms.

The best way to think of it may be to revert to a classic metaphor: it is a gift that keeps on giving---and a gift for our alumni.

One last bit of advice to institutions considering lifelong learning programming (online or otherwise). HarvardX for Alumni demanded and facilitated unprecedented cooperation among several University departments, offices, and members of leadership. For a large, complex institution like Harvard that counts for a lot, but also takes a great deal of effort. As you can imagine the level of staff and faculty support was also high, but worth it.

Ultimately, alumni engagement today, whether through MOOCs or social media or viral videos, requires experimentation and continued refinement. It is, however, hard not to be inspired and encouraged by reactions such as the below, said by an Harvard alumnus taking the online excerpt from "Poetry in America": 

"Maybe the author’s original intention doesn’t really matter—poems exist as something separate and unique. They are a shared creation between the author’s words on the page and whatever experiences the reader brings."

Harvard Forever, indeed. 

Anne Cushing is Director, Alumni Digital Engagement; Erin Mackey Kistler is Senior Associate Director, College Alumni Programs; and Philip Lovejoy is Executive Director, all at the Harvard Alumni Association, Harvard University. 

(The blog post was republished from Inside Higher Ed)