The turn in online education

During the summer break on campuses nationwide, providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) were evidently hard at work developing their fall-term offerings and broadening their capabilities—and were the subject of still more comment and analysis as technology influences higher education. Some highlights appear here, Harvard Magazine reports.

Even as HarvardX has moved into its new quarters at 125 Mount Auburn Street and continued to augment its staff (adding a chief videographer and a program assistant, and continuing to hire student video assistants and a research programmer), edX has rented much larger offices in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, totaling 30,000 square feet, according to news reports; the Crimson reported that total staffing was expected to be 90 to 100 employees and consultants by the time of the move in January.

HarvardX posted its video branding “anthem” (a visual montage with musical accompaniment) online, and has also posted a trailer for the forthcoming ChinaX course, narrated by Christopher Lydon, journalist and formerly host of The Connection on radio station WBUR.

A special report on “Learning in the Digital Age” in the August Scientific American presented diverse perspectives on MOOCs, adaptive-learning technologies, and their use in varied classroom settings.

To the extent that MOOC proponents focus on making elite U.S. universities’ courses available to students in developing nations (see edX president Anant Agarwal’s comment on “planet-scale democratization of education”), a report from Rwanda by reporter Jeffrey Bartholet noted that “most of the developing world is not connected to the Internet and that MOOCs require skills and motivation possessed by only the very top students.”

In fact, according to one expert Bartholet interviewed, students in developing nations with limited educational infrastructure especially require the support instructors provide in person: learning how to study, gather information, and analyze it. In this light, Bartholet reported, in developing economies, “For a small minority of exceptional students, MOOCs are a godsend.”

In a sidebar, HarvardX faculty director Robert A. Lue argued that “experimentation is key” in determining how to use online-learning tools, perhaps in “flipped classrooms” where students view recorded lectures before course meetings, and then use their time together with professors to explore challenging problems.

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