Harvard goes all in for online courses

The stress is on production values, props, and, yes, scholarship

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, and Christina Hodge of the Peabody Museum were filmed talking about a kimono for a MOOC.
Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, and Christina Hodge of the Peabody Museum were filmed talking about a kimono for a MOOC.

CAMBRIDGE — The discussion between two Harvard historians one recent morning was a little bit Ivory Tower, a little bit Hollywood.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Andrew Gordon, both preparing to teach a new breed of free online classes, met in the iconic Widener Library — bequeathed to Harvard University by the family of a Titanic victim — to discuss a topic in social history: the influence of the sewing machine on Japan’s modernization. They were surrounded not by leather-bound volumes but by a multimillion-dollar production studio and no fewer than five bustling staff members adjusting cameras and microphones and ensuring the scholars made their points clearly.

The production values were taken at least as seriously as the scholarship. As the professors discussed the international impact of the ornate turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine on display between them, the crew monitored three cameras and debated which lighting source would reflect off Gordon’s glasses or wash out Ulrich’s face.


When Gordon brushed his hand on his lapel, creating a tiny static blip, they filmed a second take. When Ulrich moved a book off the sewing machine’s oak table between takes, they put it back, then filmed her picking it up so the book would not magically disappear in the video.

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Quietly, Harvard has built what amounts to an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, high-end classes that some prestigious universities are offering for free to anyone in the world, generally without formal academic credit. Contrary to the popular image of online classes consisting largely of video from a camera planted at the back of the lecture hall, Harvard is increasingly using mini-documentaries, animation, and interactive software tools to offer a far richer product.

Related: Attracting, and keeping, online students

The endeavor, which is called HarvardX and celebrates its second birthday this month, has two video studios, more than 30 employees, and many freelancers — an astonishing constellation of producers, editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even a performance coach to help professors get comfortable in front of a camera.

HarvardX has made about 30 classes and has some 60 more in the works. Nearly 1.3 million people have signed up for HarvardX courses, almost two-thirds of them from outside the United States. (HarvardX makes the classes, but students sign up and log in via another platform, edX, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

In just two years, the MOOC has gone through a high-speed cycle of hype and letdown, heralded as the future of higher education — maybe even the death of the traditional campus — before being dismissed as a fad. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up for some classes, but few completed them, and critics questioned how an online offering could reproduce the alchemy of a professor and students gathered around the seminar table.


Yet, as Harvard demonstrates, universities continue to pour enormous amounts of money and talent into creating MOOCs and building an online infrastructure. Their aim reflects pragmatic self-interest and soaring idealism — staying competitive with peer institutions, and improving education for everyone, not just online learners in distant lands.

While plenty of Harvard professors remain skeptical about the costs, value, and even ethics of the endeavor, faculty who teach MOOCs see great potential to enrich what they offer undergraduates on campus by bringing elements from the online classes into regular courses.

Ulrich’s online class, Tangible Things, which launches June 2, will teach history through artifacts in Harvard’s museum collections to an expected 10,000 students. High-quality videography can bring students closer to rare and delicate objects than is possible in an ordinary lecture to 120 undergraduates. (Gordon, the guest star in the studio with Ulrich, is working on a separate MOOC about Japan.)

Two professors who teach an undergraduate course on China completely replaced in-class lectures with materials from their MOOC, to be reviewed by the students as part of their homework. Class time is now dedicated to discussion, and participation is being graded for the first time – not always to students’ liking.

Videos are only the beginning. HarvardX is building interactive mapping and timeline tools and a program that allows students to post comments inside videos uploaded by their classmates. David Cox, who teaches a neuroscience MOOC, does his own programming to build hands-on lessons, allowing students to manipulate settings on a computer screen to answer questions, for example, about how neurons work. He calls it a “choose your own adventure lecture.”


Because the program offers his automated feedback tailored to students’ answers, Cox said, it offers more personalized instruction than he can give in a lecture hall, especially when Harvard students tend to be “mortified of asking a dumb question.”

‘I think the stakes here are not how we can do online education better.The stakes here are how we can do education better.’

“I think the stakes here are not how we can do online education better,” Cox said. “The stakes here are how we can do education better.”

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Conceptualizing courses

“There is a new law against the word ‘extracellularly,’ ” Cox gently admonished Winston Yan, a joint MD-PhD student and one of the top staffers for his online class, Fundamentals of Neuroscience.

Cox, Yan, and four other members of the course team had gathered at HarvardX’s headquarters in an office building behind the Harvard Square post office. The space resembled a start-up, with communal tables, floor-to-ceiling dry erase boards, and brightly colored rolling chairs. Passing around containers of Thai takeout, they reviewed the draft script Yan had written for one lesson and discussed the array of videos, illustrations, and interactive exercises that would go along with the script.

It was something like a TV show’s writers’ room. Yan made fun of himself when he stumbled over awkward wording. Cox mused about how to describe a scientific discovery as the detective story it was, something he lamented rarely comes across in science classes.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, was filmed in the HarvardX studio for her class, “Tangible Things.”
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard historian, was filmed in the HarvardX studio for her class, “Tangible Things.”

And the professor said he would love to see a photo of an old scientist with mutton chops to illustrate that detective story. The course’s producer, Nadja Oertelt, shot back that the discovery was probably made by a woman who never got the credit.

Oertelt, who has a neuroscience degree from MIT and experience as a documentary filmmaker, is using her film world contacts to assemble about 20 people working on different parts of the course, whether it’s to film a brain dissection or draw one of the short animations to keep students engaged and make a topic accessible to different learning styles. Think: sodium and potassium ions portrayed as hairy-chested US and British sailors mingling in a bar during Fleet Week. Or neurotransmitters as colorful monsters on a date in a candlelit bar.

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HarvardX courses are proposed by the professors, who set the academic agenda. But 20-something staffers with eclectic backgrounds, like Oertelt, are the workhorses translating the ideas into a new medium. Oertelt, 29, said she once fell asleep flat on her face on the floor at 4 a.m. as she and Yan raced to ready the course for its debut last fall, which drew 58,000 registrants from 172 countries. The team is working on a second unit to launch in late summer.

Still, professors invariably describe putting shockingly long hours into their MOOCs. Cox, who is more involved in the production aspects of his course than most of his fellow faculty, got released from regular teaching duties for a year to focus on the MOOC. But many professors have done the projects as volunteers on their own time. Harvard is now thinking about ways to compensate them, perhaps with a flat fee or revenue sharing.

HarvardX spends about $75,000 to $150,000 developing each new MOOC, officials said. But the neuroscience course is so intricate that the team is doing its own fund-raising. It used a crowdfunding website to raise $14,000 to help some of its students around the world buy a $200 “DIY science” kit, which allows anyone to perform a lab experiment at home: cutting off a cockroach’s leg, hooking it up to an amplifier, and listening to its neurons firing. (The insect gets anesthetized in ice water, and its leg grows back.)

The experiment proved so popular it has been introduced to the Harvard campus neuroscience class that Cox co-teaches.

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Unresolved questions

The setting was as spooky as they had hoped. For Shakespeare expert Stephen Greenblatt to speak on camera about the king’s ghost in “Hamlet,” the HarvardX team had booked one of the university’s grandest spaces, the gothic, wood-paneled Sanders Theatre. The night before, producer Zachary Davis had raced to a costume shop just before closing to get a plastic skull Greenblatt could brandish for dramatic effect.

They had one spotlight trained on Greenblatt and little other lighting. It was so dark, in fact, that the professor could not read the lines from the play he wanted to discuss. A hiccup, but one quickly solved with Davis’s cellphone flashlight.

This was a test shoot, the first attempt to shape a “visual language,” as Davis called it, for Greenblatt’s MOOC on Shakespeare.

Lighting aside, the several hours of taping went well. With only a rare glance at notecards, Greenblatt spoke eloquently about the Danish story Shakespeare borrowed from and about the religious climate in England at the time the bard wrote. Davis reminded the professor of a point from his outline he’d left out, while a teaching assistant corrected a couple of lines of dialogue Greenblatt mangled.

It had taken six weeks of discussions between the professor, the teaching assistant, Davis, and others to prepare for this day. Greenblatt said he felt stiff on camera, but he relished the opportunity to learn about new ways of teaching.

“The fun part of this really for me is, it’s like being back in my 20s just starting out teaching and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s not obvious the same things you do in the classroom are the things you should be doing with a completely different scale, different people watching it, different incentives, and so forth.”

Yet Greenblatt also counts himself among the many Harvard faculty worried about the potential downsides of Harvard’s foray into online courses. He and Ulrich were among several dozen professors who wrote a letter to the administration last year seeking more discussion about the “costs and consequences” of HarvardX.

Among his worries: Will cash-strapped colleges park their students in front of MOOCs and cut back on hiring professors? What will that do to the careers of up-and-coming scholars, and what will it mean for students’ access to faculty mentoring?

“There are serious, completely unresolved questions all over the place here,” Greenblatt said.

He was encouraged to dip his toe into the MOOC world by a colleague, poetry specialist Elisa New. Earlier this year, the student newspaper, The Crimson, reported that New asked her students on campus to hold questions until the end of class, to make for smoother filming for her online class.

That sparked an uproar that the cosmetics of the MOOC were compromising the classroom, but New called it a misunderstanding, and Harvard officials say they rarely film in on-campus classes anyway.

As for the cost question, Harvard officials insist HarvardX must and will find a way to support itself and not detract from campus needs. The goal is a mix of funding sources, including philanthropy and licensing software and courses to other institutions. A donation, for example, paid for the deluxe studio in Widener Library.

And Harvard is beginning to experiment with ways to charge MOOC learners for extras, like a verified certificate or even course credit.

Peter K. Bol is one of the professors who taught the MOOC on China and is a vice provost overseeing HarvardX. He thinks every MOOC should have an automated version available for free. But for virtual office hours and other interactions with professors and teaching assistants, he imagines a small fee. A modest $10 or $20 from thousands of students could cover the cost, he said.

“As we go forward we have to always ask the question, how can we afford this?” he said.

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Unforeseen hours of work

Before the antique sewing machine could have its star turn, the team behind Ulrich’s Tangible Things class faced a lot of decisions. Would it film the machine by itself, or capture Ulrich introducing the viewer to its lavish gold Sphinx decorations and baffling metal attachments? What background color should they use in the studio? Would black be too dark behind the black lacquered machine? Would white look like it was selling a product on Amazon?

These were just a few of the topics of debate when Davis, the 30-year-old producer for the history MOOC as well as the Shakespeare course, visited Ulrich in the professor’s library study, accompanied by two editor/videographers.

There was a pressing problem: The sewing machine was not working. Davis, intent on getting it to operate for its film debut, sprang into action, tossing his blazer aside and diving under the desk to try to get a rubber tube back on its track. (He got it working, but only briefly.)

Ulrich would be working into the night on her script, an inch-thick stack of paper she brought to a taping the next morning in the second and much more modest HarvardX studio in a converted conference room. She was at ease in front of the camera, and only occasionally paused to consult the voluminous script. But Davis was vigilant for the most minor flaws, asking her to repeat passages such as one in which she added an unnecessary “th” sound to the word “Egyptomania.”

The following week, Ulrich, Davis, and the course’s editor spent several hours visiting Harvard’s archeology museum, the Peabody, and its women’s history library, the Schlesinger, to film artifacts related to Ulrich’s lesson. At the end of the library visit, they brought Ulrich back outside and filmed three takes of her walking into the building bracing against the wind.

Hours of work — all for what Davis guessed would be 30 to 60 seconds of footage to play along with Ulrich’s narration.

Davis said MOOCs should be thought of not as an alternative to traditional classes but as high-tech, multifaceted textbooks.

He views his work as making documentaries and telling stories — and staying as far away from traditional lectures as possible.

“The first and most important lesson is, you are not just replicating the classroom,” he said.

He and Ulrich want to get their far-flung MOOC students involved as well: They will be asked to choose objects from their own lives to study, and will be able to create their own exhibitions on the website Pinterest.

Ulrich said she got involved because she is always looking for ways to engage with the public, and likes the idea of sharing something for free that she thinks will be useful to museums and historical societies.

“It’s been absolutely fun, a lot of work — an incredible amount of work. I mean I just couldn’t imagine how much work,” Ulrich said. She was not warned what she was getting into, she said, because no one knew.

“Everything’s being invented,’’ she said. “This really is a research project as much as an education project, to try to figure out what Harvard can do.”

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Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.