Harvard’s online course: a MOOC, sort of

Harvard University will offer one online computer science course in three different ways this semester, allowing students to choose from options that drastically vary in price.

harvard-online-moocThe expense of creating a type of online learning that is meant to be offered for free has made financing massive open online courses (MOOCs) a challenge for some schools.

With its Introduction to Computer Science course, Harvard is taking a crack and what it hopes may lead to a sustainable business model.

The course now comes in three flavors: a completely free MOOC, a moderately-priced certified hybrid course, and the pricier full Harvard course.

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The MOOC version of the course is offered through HarvardX, Harvard’s division of the nonprofit MOOC platform edX. Like many edX MOOCs, those who successfully complete the self-paced course will receive a personalized certificate.

While completely free, the certificate carries no college credit or traditional value within the institution.

Students wanting a certificate with a little more recognition can pay $350 to participate in a “blended” version of the course that combines aspects of the MOOC with facets of more traditional online learning.

“For this fee-based option you interact with teaching assistants in discussion forums, participate in virtual group office hours with the instructor, and work towards earning a passing score on nine problem sets,” edX said.

The certificate is coupled with a $350 tuition voucher for the Harvard University Extension School, turning the course into a sort-of promotional coupon for the university’s continuing studies program.

A recent study released by Babson Survey Group found that nearly half of institutions that invest in MOOCs do so for marketing purposes, with 20 percent of colleges and universities saying they use the courses to drive student recruitment.

The final, and most expensive, option is the traditional semester-long course at the Harvard Extension School.

“You gain full access to the teaching staff, receiving human feedback on assignments,” the course’s edX page promises. “Enroll for undergraduate or graduate credit and you will receive grades on a Harvard transcript.”

The course is offered only online, but local students are encouraged to attend the filming of the lectures on Harvard’s campus. The cost for this option is $2,050.

The course’s lectures  are also already offered for free s part of Harvard’s comparatively low-tech Open Learning Initiative.

Harvard has not released enrollment numbers for the course’s three different models as the data is still being collected, said Michael Rutter, communications director for HarvardX. The free MOOC is likely to have the most students with more than 170,000 already signed up.

“I can say that we have been encouraged by the results and that students seem to understand the various differences, and value, among the three experiences,” Rutter said.

Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.

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