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Harvard Provost issues white paper on digital and residential education at Harvard

In a recently released white paper, Everywhere and Anytime, Here and Now: Digital and Residential Education at Harvard, Provost Alan M. Garber reflects upon the rise of MOOCs – “heralded as a disruptive change, garnering praise and provoking anxiety” – and discusses how Harvard University is pursuing its learning and research mission in their wake.

His discussion is centered around the genesis and impact of HarvardX, a faculty-led “organizing force and a testbed for emerging approaches to teaching,” and the edX learning platform, co-founded with MIT in May of 2012.

An excerpt from the paper is below.


Throughout Harvard’s long history as an institution of higher learning, it has pursued multiple goals, often in conflict with one another. Two Harvard presidents who did much to shape the University of the 20th century, for example, had differing views of the educational mission. Heavily influenced by the models of German universities of the late 19th, Charles W. Eliot emphasized advanced study and research, perhaps at the expense of the classic liberal arts curriculum.

A. Lawrence Lowell, his successor, saw more promise in the British model. He sought to place undergraduate education securely at the center of the University, establishing the residential house system and promoting a liberal arts orientation. Tensions between specialization and generalism are among the many conflicts that have not disappeared or even waned. Indeed, they are very much part of who we are as a research university.

As has been true throughout Harvard’s history, we have tried to have it both ways. The residential house system, for example, was intended to create the connectedness and sense of community of a small liberal arts college in the setting of a large research university, with its resources and plethora of curricular and extracurricular opportunities. We have long strived to find a path forward that draws from the best aspects of competing visions and goals. It is precisely our unwillingness to be satisfied with partial success —our insistence on “both/and” rather than “either/or”—that enables Harvard to grow, to adapt, to improve.

Innovations in educational technology are opening up new avenues for universities to advance learning. The introduction of massive open online courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, has been heralded as a disruptive change, garnering praise and provoking anxiety. Would expanded access herald a new age of higher education unbound from brick-and-mortar campuses? Would well-funded institutions render other colleges and universities obsolete? Could the in-person experience be replicated, or at least closely approximated, online? Could the real and the virtual complement and strengthen one another—or would learning and teaching be unrecognizable fifty years hence?

Speculative extremes often become less compelling with the passage of time and the benefit of experience. Perhaps the introduction of the elective system and the case method, two educational innovations created at Harvard, were met with the same combination of excitement and skepticism. Yet they have become so much a part of how we think about teaching and learning that it is difficult to envision this university—or any other, for that matter—without them.

HarvardX and our other initiatives in digital learning have similarly begun to change how we think about teaching and learning today. How can we use new tools to reach a variety of learners? How are the needs and motivations of students on our campus similar to and different from the needs and motivations of students elsewhere? How can faculty be supported in their work as we seek to understand even more about how people learn?

These questions and others have guided our pursuits, even as those pursuits have seemed to take us in different and sometimes competing directions. As we considered how we might approach the opportunities that technological advances presented for improvements in teaching and learning, we were confronted with two basic questions: was our goal to improve teaching on our campus, ensuring that Harvard College and our graduate and professional programs would offer the most compelling residential educational experience possible, or was our goal to improve the learning opportunities for anybody anywhere in the world with an interest in the subjects we teach? How would we know whether our approach to online learning had accomplished either of these goals?

We realized that courses narrowly targeted toward Harvard students were unlikely to attract the largest group of learners worldwide to our MOOCs. But if we wanted to improve residential learning, many of our online and hybrid learning experiences—and their components—would need to be compatible with our faculty’s approaches to teaching Harvard students face-to-face. The rationale for focusing on either educating the world or educating students on our campus — rather than trying to serve both audiences at the same time—was strong. But our mission required us to do more. As has been true so often in our history, we chose to move forward with a commitment to serve both audiences.

Thus, we are committed to improving education on our own campus and, at the same time, offering high quality learning experiences to students who may never enter one of our classrooms. Such openness must be balanced by the need to limit enrollment in some courses and to tailor content to match the varied needs of learners. We are also committed to discovering whether our efforts are successful, and more generally to exploring how people learn. The commitment to research is fundamental to our identity as a university dedicated to producing new knowledge, and we are inspired by the possibilities that MOOCs, along with newer classroom environments, offer for research into learning.

And so we find ourselves at a moment of “both/and” as we pursue our learning and research mission in the digital age. This is a challenging yet enviable position. Harvard is, as former University of California President Clark Kerr once noted, “both the oldest and the newest of American universities,” celebrating its past and continually examining, questioning, and exploring in its quest to build a better future.