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Harvard and the Rise of a Digital Ivy League

There’s a new elite forming in higher education: a group of universities that have online enrollments reaching into the millions, and the global reach of which includes learners of every age, profession, income level, and expertise (from high school students in Chicago to the retired psychologist in rural Japan, or the project manager in Cape Town).

The digital Ivy League includes MIT (more than four million enrollments) and the University of Pennsylvania (more than five million enrollments). It also includes the University of Michigan, Delft University of Technology, and a few Australian universities.

Another university that has been particularly bold with its online learning efforts is Harvard University. Harvard is considered a paragon of on-campus higher education; it has also become an online learning powerhouse with over 80 massive open online courses (MOOCs) taught by more than 120 faculty, and over 4.5 million enrollments from over 1.5 million unique course participants in 193 countries. Harvard also co-founded the MOOC platform edX.

HarvardX by the numbers. src: HarvardX: Year in Review 2015–2016.

Hundreds of faculty, students, and staff have been involved with HarvardX, the university’s online learning division. Harvard researchers continuously analyze the motivations and behaviors of its MOOC learners. I spoke with Peter Bol, Harvard’s Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, and he says that most learners that have enrolled in its MOOCs are primarily seeking personal enrichment. According to Bol, one of Harvard’s current goals is to offer a high-quality liberal arts education to learners everywhere.

Over twenty Harvard on-campus courses now use a blended approach 

Another goal is reusing content developed for online courses to improve in-person classroom instruction (both at Harvard and beyond). Over twenty Harvard on-campus courses now use a blended approach: students watch recorded lectures at home, and spend class / instructor time asking questions, working with other students, reflecting, and applying what they learned from the lectures. HarvardX content is also being used to prepare new students before they arrive on-campus.

Around a third of HarvardX MOOC learners identify as teachers 

Around a third of HarvardX MOOC learners identify as teachers, so Harvard has been developing tools to help teachers incorporate and effectively use MOOC content in their classrooms. The university is also experimenting with offering its MOOCs (along with other support) in community centers.

I also spoke with HarvardX Faculty Director Robert A. Lue about HarvardXPLUS, which offers online courses with enrollment capped in the hundreds. In that program, learners are grouped based on certain characteristics and each learner has access to special tools to interact with the content (e.g. video annotation tools). Harvard has also begun offering its very popular CS50 MOOC in a new virtual reality format, allowing learners to feel like they’re sitting inside the lecture hall.

Many people are skeptical (or cynical) of the value of MOOCs and other digital learning innovations. My suggestion is to remain skeptical but recognize that these innovations are already reaching tens of millions of learners all over the world.