“Very effective,” said Thomas McGahey, 18, a student in the class. “It’s almost as if you have a third professor in the house — or wherever you are.”
Potential and skepticism
At the nation’s oldest college, MOOCs have set professors abuzz.
Robert A. Lue, a Harvard biologist helping to lead the project, said more than 100 faculty members are “chomping at the bit to do something.” He considers that a major shift: “Ten years ago, there was a tiny minority of us that were really intrigued by this.”
Among those in the vanguard is Gregory Nagy. Since the 1970s, the classics professor has taught a popular course on heroes in ancient Greek literature. He jumped at the chance to offer one of the first humanities MOOCs.
“I saw enormous potential here,” Nagy said. “It’s making Harvard more accessible to more people.”
Launched in March, the MOOC has drawn 30,000 students. That’s nearly three times the estimated 10,000 who have taken the campus version in the past four decades.
Nagy’s MOOC features short videos of himself and others analyzing classics such as the “Iliad.” There are clips of students reciting Homeric poetry and of scenes from modern works, including the film “Blade Runner,” that Nagy uses for comparison. Online students take multiple-choice quizzes and respond to questions on passages highlighted within texts.
Many also participate in discussion groups named for characters such as Achilles and Penelope. Dozens of alumni who have taken the traditional course have volunteered to help guide the forums. Nagy, with assistance from a scholarly production team, said he has spent many more hours than usual on assessments and teaching methods.
“This experience is helping me rethink what I’ve done in the classroom for the last 37 years,” Nagy said. Developing the MOOC, he said, has made him “a better professor.”
Still, there is deep skepticism in many quarters of academia. The Amherst faculty voted 70 to 41 against joining edX, with five abstentions. Experimenting with MOOCs might enhance the college’s reputation, a faculty committee’s analysis suggested, but might be inconsistent with its mission. The analysis also challenged whether there are any impartial studies of the proposition that MOOCs improve face-to-face teaching.
“Amherst is a wonderful institution and we would have been delighted to have them join,” edX said in a statement afterward. “We acknowledge that online educational platforms are not the appropriate solution for all courses or all faculty.”
There is no doubt that MIT and Harvard, like Amherst, remain committed to residential education. But it seems likely that MOOCs will catalyze major change.
MIT’s Grimson said the online revolution is raising questions about course length and the time it takes to earn a degree. Some MOOCs could be chopped into pieces, he said, and spliced into other courses. Think of a two-week chunk of math inserted into an engineering course. Imagine an economics MOOC that weaves together contributions from Harvard, MIT and the University of Chicago.
Or imagine using MOOCs to identify potential MIT students. It happened a few months ago.
Agarwal said he spotted a 17-year-old named Amol Bhave, from Jabalpur, India, who had aced his MOOC on circuits and electronics. The edX president recommended Bhave to MIT’s dean of admissions. In March, Bhave said, he was admitted to the Class of 2017.
“Prof. Agarwal was a wonderful teacher and his ‘Aha’ moments (as the professor used to refer the most revealing moments) were really really exciting,” Bhave said in an e-mail. “And now I am going to be there in person to meet all those fantastic teachers. Just can’t wait to hop on campus.”