Online Irony

by Michael Patrick Rutter, Communications Director, HarvardX

In online learning, there is a sense that everything should be online.

We have held a series of Town Halls across campus to discuss edX/HarvardX. While highly regarded, a number of attendees always came up to me at the end to say, "Why wasn't this done online? Why didn't you flip this talk?"

The point of the Town Halls are to convey information, but more important, to have a lively debate among the faculty and other stakeholders. In person. In real time. Could you do that on a discussion forum, sure---but you don't have to do it that way. We, of course, post all of the materials after the fact and are thinking about doing virtual sessions as well (to reach more faculty at a time of their own choosing.) But I know the campus-based events will continue. Faculty, by their nature, gather, discuss, and debate everything.

MIT and Harvard MIT summit
A panel discussion at the MIT-Harvard online learning summit held in March 2013. (Photo by DOMINICK REUTER.)

Likewise, in March, when MIT and Harvard held a summit about online learning and residential education a snarky Financial Times reporter wrote an article called: "Open web courses are massively overhyped." 

Harvard and MIT this month hosted a summit on the coming online education disruption. Several university heads and Moocs champions turned up, in person, for three keynote addresses, three panels and a dinner. I would like to tell you more, but the video of the event is, as I write, unavailable, so I don’t know whether anyone present spotted the irony.

The Summit, a major moment in higher education, took place in a traditional place-based format (albeit Sal Kahn was beamed in; there were live tweets; and themes from the event were posted as 'word clouds' as the day progressed.) Moreover, videos/summaries are now online. Future events are being discussed, and I suspect, they will evolve and have more online components.)

The FT piece also led to MIT President Rafael Reif (a co-host of the Summit) to write a response. 

But in fact, the summit was largely focused on how online learning might strengthen our campuses – with many of us, myself included, arguing that we are as excited by what online learning tools can do for residential education as we are by the democratising power of reaching millions of people around the world online. If anything, our summit, packed as it was with educational leaders from around the world, only strengthened my belief in the power and importance of the physical campus.

And, yes: as Mr Skapinker rightly anticipated, one of the meeting’s participants did indeed cite the very irony he does in making her own remarks about the importance of in-person gathering.

I applaud Reif for his candor and willingness to thumb his nose at the reporter. Yes, as a co-founder of edX, one of the major MOOC enterprises, we do get your intended irony, but there is really no irony to be found. If you want evidence, look to the behavior of online learners.

Inside the virtual classrooms at edX and elsewhere, online is only part of the story. There has long been the critique that MOOCs provide a lesser experience, removing the classic vibrant campus and replacing it with a 2D, lifeless screen. The extended argument goes something like this: for those who can "get in" and afford the real college experience, that's grand. For everyone else, here's a knock-off, lesser version. Hey, it's free. What do you expect?

That's turning out to be another myth.

edX has a vibrant Meetup community---so those taking courses can hang out together. In India, an entire hospital joined as one to take a Harvard course on public health. At an Andover High School, students are taking Ivy League courses together, for credit.

San Jose State University is collaborating with edX on hybrid learning, using edX courses in a campus environment. At the press conference marking the announcement, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom said: “It’s not the tyranny of OR. It’s the genius of AND," in comparing traditional, campus- and place-based courses with what is called the "flipped" method.

Initiatives like BostonX also hold promise for using online courses as a way to gather community members to learn. Boston Magazine reported: "Skeptics of online education argue that students who learn in isolation don’t engage in the critical thinking that takes place in a classroom. But Agarwal says that the plans for BostonX will help bridge that gap. For one thing, the program will allow people to participate and discuss online courses together at one location."

For two HarvardX courses, HLS1x: Copyright and ER22x: Justice, the faculty have held live webinars to allow students to interact in real time. Rather than being treated like second class students, any student, from anywhere can raise their hand and have an opportunity to engage with the famed Michael Sandel. No acceptance letter necessary. 

The alumni clubs of Harvard, located around the world, have also expressed interest in taking courses "together" as an active way to hang out and socialize. 

And as someone who is personally taking a course, CB22x: Heroes, I have talked to colleagues here who are enrolled as well and shared my virtual insights about epic Greek poetry with just about anyone who will take time to listen. Meaning, after slogging through a tough passage about Achilles, you want to share your triumph, both online and off.

In all cases, the virtual becomes, as social networking has proven, a way to initiate in-person experiences.  

Finally, still reeling to make sense of what's happened in my beautiful city, it is hard not to call attention to an edX student's very real feeling after the attacks at the Boston Marathon. 

Dear Professor Sandel

I am one of your students at the on-line course "Justice". My name is Alodia Clemente and I'm from Spain. The reason I write is because as soon as I heard the news of the bombs in the Boston Marathon and I thought of you and the other classmates. It's strange to have this affection for people who I'd never met before but I have this feeling for each and every one of you as if you were there with you.

I hope all of you and your family and friends are well.

Take this opportunity to tell you how is interesting and challenging are your classes. It is a pleasure to listen to you and the classmates.

Receive all my support.

There is nothing virtual or lesser about that.