From Zero to Hero

by Michael Patrick Rutter, Communications Director, HarvardX

I've taken the plunge.

As I direct communications for HarvardX, it seems only fitting that I should practice what I preach, and take an edX/HarvardX course. I am enrolled in CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero

As I am camera shy, my "Hello World" moment will be verbal:

  • Salve amici! I am a public affairs professional who has never left the confines of academia (although I have worked on several start-ups with .edu origins.) I am also a proud parent of 1-year old twin girls, who keep me very busy. Relying upon a personal love of mythology and some, sketchy ancient knowledge of the classics (six years of Latin over a quarter-of-a-century ago), I think I have a chance of sticking it out. I look forward to finding time in the in-between hours (between intense work days and often even more intense evenings with the kiddos) to re-engage my mind. 

I am also in a privileged position, a kind of real-time "Behind The Music" situation. In addition to taking the course, I get to watch the course being made. In fact, HeroesX (our short hand) was the first course I worked on when I took this job in January. Thus, this blog will be more than simply my own personal musings about taking the course itself. (I do applaud those who are recording their own experiences, as in the words of Rousseau: “...we badly need someone to teach us the art of learning with difficulty.” (Emile.))

As much as possible, I want this blog to be unvarnished (and filled with guest bloggers who are doing the real, hefty lifting). What I have found among our adventuresome faculty, instructors, and technical wizards engaging in the online learning space is an unabashed honesty. Beyond the idealism (of which, there is a healthy dose), there is a sense that to be successful, pioneers will have to tolerate a great deal of ambiguity and become students again, willing to raise their hands in public and getting it not-quite-right. In fact, I give a lot of credit to the Heroes team in particular on this count.

Here's an example of the kinds of initial lessons still being learned---and a sense of the kinds of issues I plan to write about.

Marketing an online course, from the descriptive copy to the graphical icon, has no set rulebook. Well before the Heroes course launched, we had some passionate discussions about a topic that most in academia take pains to stay away from. After all, when it is the last time one had to come up with a campaign for say, Intro to Stats or Organic Chemistry.

  • How Harvard-ish should a HarvardX course be?
  • Should the online platform or the instructor and the team manage social media? How mediated should emailing tens of thousands of students be? Are there FERPA issues when it comes to using social media to engagement in even casual academic discussions?
  • How do you address learners or students or even edXers, Udacians, or my personal favorite, Courserians? What's the right tone, attitude, and approach? We refer to this issue here as the "gravitas" problem. At Harvard, and I am sure at most other institutions, we know our students, as they have been through the tumble dry cycle of admissions. While we do have a marvelous Extension Program that is open admissions, MOOCs are, well, different due to scale and approach, and because they are, right now, not just open but free.
  • What is the best way to engage and when? I still question launching a course six months before it starts. Imagine if we asked Harvard students to enroll in courses six months in advance. I give credit to the HeroesX team for opening up the discussion forums for their course early, so they could get the conversation started.
  • With that in mind, we have been having endless debates about when marketing/enrollment driving stops and student engagement begins. How does one manage student engagement? On campus, there are entire support systems/offices. In the online world, there is talk of virtual TAs and TFs or "sherpas" to help guide and inspire. Are they the same? in the case of Heroes, the team smartly engaged alumni who had already taken the course to serve as TFs and even allowed those taking the course to reach out to a friend (via email) to serve as a cheerleader to help keep them engaged and on track.
  • What happens when something goes wrong or not-quite-right? What's the obligation to the registrants? There is an instinctual attitude of: Hey, it's free ... what do you expect? Then again, in the age of "free" tools ranging from search engines to social networks to apps, that doesn't cut it anymore. Moreover, there is a pride stake. A faculty member's reputation and a school's are both on the line. At least here, we take quality/experience very very seriously. Again, with kudos to the Heroes team, when something unexpected happened with the discussion forums, they got right out in front of it. I think it is worth cutting-and-pasting their note to the entire student population. For lack of a better word, it's quite beautiful:


Dear participants,

The teaching staff of this course wants it to be a human and humane experience for everyone involved, and also, to the extent that individual participants wish, a social experience that fosters communities of learning around its subject, the ancient Greek hero.

Last night, unfortunately, something happened that was contrary to both of those ideals of ours. Without warning or explanation, many thousands of participants were suddenly moved out of the cohort that they had been part of and in which they had been joining discussion and into another forum.

What happened was this: the software team tried to fix an error that had placed several thousands of you in one forum (Briseis) and the rest in much smaller groups. Their thinking was that the course had not yet started, so that there was no risk. Big mistake.

We need to and are addressing the communication breakdown that caused this to happen, but we also want you to understand two things about our course.

    1. First, we want to have the forums divided into cohorts of about 1000 students so that the staff of readers and mentors can be responsive to you and personally interact with as many of you as possible during the course. If we just had one giant forum, as other HarvardX and edX courses do, that would be next to impossible. The idea is also to make it possible for those who are less willing to engage in online conversation to feel more comfortable about doing so in a relatively smaller group. We don't know if this will work, but we definitely want to try.
    2. Secondly, we need to let you know that we are all -- you as participants and we as staff members -- experimental subjects in this course. Even though it has been taught over many years on various platforms, the course has never been done on a scale like this. We are in adventure mode, and there will be bumps in the road as we and the software mature and develop. This is definitely exciting, but it can also produce breakdowns like this one. For instance, we can anticipate that when the course actually launches tomorrow morning at 5 am EDT, there may be problems with the servers, and the edX site may be unavailable at times. We hope that doesn't happen, and we are doing our best to be proactive and will try to warn you about such problems before they happen, but there will be problems like this, of that we can be sure, from time to time.

We dearly hope you can keep your patience with us as we proceed.

All best wishes,
Greg Nagy and Lenny Muellner

As I said, this is quite a stunning letter---in its honesty and openness. It's become a kind of benchmark for us.

The above meanderings are only some of the daily/weekly issues I myself have encountered. These don't even scratch the surface of content creation, video, programming, and copyright and faculty compensation to name a few. 

Keeping in mind the hype about MOOCs, some might say the questions we are wrestling with are like the stories told by the ancients. They are not new. There are reference points. Folks have been doing online learning or adult ed or ages. Surely, we can just take cues from what's gone before and stop all of this existential soul searching.

Having been in higher education for my entire professional life, I have to say, this time it's different. It's a kind of in-your-bones feeling that this wave, disruption, movement, or whatever metaphor you want to lay on, is not like the others. Even if issues are being revisited, they are being looked at anew. They demand our attention and care. New rules are being written.

To close this post and the Hello World circle, I will do some indulgent self-reflection of my own. I left a secure, happy family that I had been part of for nearly a decade to join this quest. As Communications Director at Harvard's burgeoning engineering school, I pretty much knew everyone and everything---in a good, soul filling way.

I left because I could feel, to use yet another metaphor, the weather shifting with the rise of MOOCs and online learning. Even the most cynical faculty were taking note, and saying "You know, this is the right thing for Harvard and MIT to do."

I left to be part of something that quite frankly, could fizzle or even fail, even with the backing of mighty MIT and Harvard. I think the chance for risk is surprisingly seductive in higher education, as it has been, up until now, a safe haven.

I left because there were days that I was too far removed from why I first chose to be part of higher education: teaching and learning. As much as people accuse MOOCs of being a business, it is very easy to become too business-like when you are in higher education for a long period of time. The campus becomes just a bit of pretty green space that you walk through to get to an anonymous office building.

When you leave a role or a place, if you are lucky enough, you leave in order to arrive somewhere else.

In my case, I took the advice of our engineering dean who always said: the greatest risk is not to grow.