Home Just What Are Online Courses Good For? A Q&A With Harvard’s Peter Bol

Just What Are Online Courses Good For? A Q&A With Harvard’s Peter Bol

This post is part of Hire Education, an ongoing series in which ReadWrite examines technological innovation in education and how it’s reshaping universities that are preparing students for a transformed workforce.

If you believe the proponents of online education, universities are in the midst of a full-blown technological transformation—one that will shortly unseat traditional coursework and liberate higher learning from the shackles of those expensive, ivy-strewn halls of academia.

But the view from those hallowed halls is very different. Harvard’s Peter K. Bol, the newly appointed vice provost of advances in learning, argues that technology doesn’t actually change that much for students, that degrees and credits still matter, and that the best way to get them is … well, to attend an institution like Harvard.

ReadWrite: How would you define the challenges presented by educational technology, online courses, etc.? 

Peter K. Bol: Let me make the following distinction—and here, I’m not speaking for Harvard. I’m speaking for myself, so I have the freedom to change my mind as the data persuades me. 

Around 95% of the people who sign up for these online courses apparently are not interested in getting a certificate or credential. [But] the people who do want the credential, who want some recognition, is still a very large number. We need to be sure that those people are offered the same level of rigor and demand that we offer our own students. 

At the same time, we have to recognize that the vast majority of people are not there with the same commitment. They may be there because they’re interested in the subject, or want to try their hand at some of the assessments and exercises.

RW: For people interested in academic rigor, is that even possible in an online setting?

PKB: Of course it’s possible. For example, in some fields, the whole issue is the mastery of the amount of information. In other fields—[such as] the social sciences and humanities—it’s not really the mastery of information. The information is useful because it gives you stuff to think with.

But your views, interpretations, discussions with other people—you’re trying to work out what something means, how to understand it, interpret it, explain it and account for it. These are the things that are best suited for discussion.

One of the things we’re doing is creating very serious discussion forums. We have a combination of set topics for each week or each module. [But] we simply do not have the manpower to try to maintain a discussion with everybody. Can’t be done. We do know, however, that the number of people participating in discussion forums keeps rising during the course. And people are interested in talking to other people.

Now, what can we do to steer that? We use online lectures to allow us to give up lecturing in the classroom at Harvard and, instead, devote what used to be lecture time to serious in-depth discussion for the students.

RW: That would be the flipped classroom model.

PKB: That’s right. Those discussions have to be structured too. We have to know what questions we’ll ask them, which we’ll follow up with, and what possible views we hope will be articulated, and so on. So we filmed those discussions. People in the online forum, in the massive open online course, can also see how exactly that question was discussed in the Harvard classroom by the professor and the students.

RW: What are the hallmarks of success for these flipped classrooms?

PKB: I was speaking to a group of directors of graduate studies, and somebody asked, “How do you measure success?” I think we measure success by student learning. We know because we’ve actually polled the students on this, and they really like the online lectures. It allows them to go back; they’re shorter than the usual lecture; they can freeze and go back on the tape.

They appreciate the fact that online lectures have good visual explanation, and they like that we put up bullet points when we’re talking, so they know exactly where we are. 

RW: How do you compare that to the purely online class, like those offered by edX, the nonprofit formed by Harvard and MIT that offers free online courses to anyone, where all discussion and lectures happen on the Web?

PKB: Remember I also employ “cold calling.” Students can volunteer too, but I call everybody, no matter where they are. You can’t replicate exactly that in a purely online format.

Students who take courses online through Harvard Division of Continuing Education pay top dollar to do this. They’re interested in getting the credential or degree, [and] we try to accommodate their schedules.

They write papers, they do exams—every posting they make gets read and commented upon on by a teaching fellow or me. Those are very serious courses. I mean, they lead to a Harvard degree, after all.

RW: I saw online that someone asked, “If I got my degree from Harvard online, did I really go to Harvard?” What would you say to that? 

PKB: Well, let’s make a distinction between the courses we offer through the Division of Continuing Education and the MOOCs [massive open online courses]. Courses offered through the [DCE] cost money and lead to degrees. We’ve been [offering] that for decades. There’s nothing new about that. If they took courses through these online classes, those online classes are not MOOCs.

But what I can tell you is Harvard is not planning, does not see, does not view as part of its future, turning MOOCs into degree-granting courses.

RW: What are the practical differences between MOOCs and the online classes from continuing-education programs?

PKB: If you’re looking to build accreditations, then you shouldn’t be doing the MOOC. MOOCs are good for building knowledge and learning. In the MOOC you’re on your own. You can watch what you want, do what you want, participate in discussions, it’s all up to you.

If you want a degree, you should go through institutions where there is real discussion, that’s supervised, where you write papers and do exams. That’s going to cost money. But if you’re serious about developing knowledge of a field and want a degree or credit, you go to the Division of Continuing Education.

That means you have to be there and submit work every week. There is feedback from the teaching staff every week. There are summaries, requests for more clarification or more work. You can have individual chats with your teaching fellows. You can write to me, and I’ll answer, and so on and so forth.

RW: There’s a lot of hype in the tech industry regarding MOOCs being the future of education, with the coursework and discussion all being conducted online.

PKB: If we think about what the online format is best for, it’s not discussion. It’s lecture, particularly in the way in which edX has developed very sound approaches to giving lectures. Which is, you don’t lecture people for more than five to seven minutes.

At every section of the lecture, you stop, pause, give students a chance to answer questions and think about what they heard, and then move on. That’s a really effective method of learning. It’s so much better than cramming for a final exam. That’s really good online. But discussion between the professor and the students, that’s so much better in person.

Now, that doesn’t mean you might not have courses where you only have online discussion, and no intervention from the teaching staff. No doubt that will happen, but you go back to the thing where … if you have 25,000 students, you’re not going to talk to them all.

RW: What are the particular challenges that Harvard faces with online education, whether in the near or long term?

PKB: I think the challenge is to make sure Harvard is offering those courses the same way we would offer courses on campus. They’re hard, challenging, and not for everybody. And we will continue to work hard to maintain that quality. So the challenge for us is gathering the course material, preparing it, testing it. The number of faculty who want to be doing this is very large. [But] our bandwidth for helping them do the things they want to do is narrower.

RW: Does Harvard have a specific goal here? Is it a pedagogical, to move education forward? Is it to make excellence in education more available and affordable? Ultimately, what does Harvard hope to achieve? 

PKB: We hope to add to the sum of knowledge and understanding of the world. We hope to make it possible for people around the world to learn, to advance. This is part of the larger mission of the university.

However, I should say right away that we do have criteria here. We ask in every instance—before we try to develop a course or a module—how is this going to be turned back on the classroom? How will it help you be a better teacher here at home? That’s just as important, just as much a part of the equation. How we transform teaching internally is very important.

RW: Where do you see online education going in the future—say, five or 10 years out?

PKB: Well, the question is fair enough. But I can’t answer it at the moment, because even here, we are at the beginning of this. We have a very fortunate situation of this being funded by the universities involved. We certainly have to think about revenue generation, but we don’t have to make a profit. And we don’t have to have everything decided right at this moment.

The fact that MIT and Harvard can afford to do this without expecting that they’re going to make money, as we try to figure out how we can actually do good things—for our students and for the world. And that’s superb. I think we’re so lucky as Americans to be in that situation with private universities that can afford to do that.

RW: What do you think of for-profit companies getting involved in online education? It seems there’s a battle between education’s traditionalists versus the would-be innovators. What do you make of that?

PKB: I think that in the for-profit world, you’re right. They are a lot of people looking to see how this can deliver return on investment. My impression—and again I speak for myself—is that in the short term, we don’t expect any return on investment. We want to understand how we can be better educators, and how students can learn in an effective way that doesn’t require cramming at the last moment and forgetting 70 percent of what they’ve learned. We want to do our jobs better.

If you can say anything about [Harvard] President Faust and Alan Garber, the provost, it’s that they care about the mission. They care about what the university exists for in the first place. And they exist for the advancement of knowledge and the possibility of sharing and learning.

Peter K. Bol is the Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages Civilization and Director of the Center for Geographic Analysis. He has chaired the Harvard Academic Computing Committee and provided one of HarvardX’s first online courses on China. Currently, as the new vice provost of advances in learning, he oversees Harvard’s online educational initiatives, including those from edX/HarvardX and the Harvard Extension School’s Division of Continuing Education, among others. 

Feature image by Flickr user rp72. All other images courtesy of Peter K. Bol

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