Saturday, December 01, 2007

Online education, sharing knowledge, and a proposal for Harvard

Spotted in a Boston Globe article entitled "An MIT education is now just a click away":
On Wednesday, the school celebrated the completion of a six-year initiative to put its entire curriculum online, with all 1,800 undergraduate and graduate courses - lectures, readings, labs, even problem sets and exams - available with just a few clicks and a spirit of scientific curiosity.

The initiative, the first of its kind, has been enormously successful, so far attracting some 31 million visitors from nearly every country who are drawn to such classes as Electricity and Magnetism, Classical Mechanics, and Introduction to Algorithms.
The misleading title aside (while the OpenCourseWare program places course materials online, including some video lectures, but does not provide textbooks, interaction with instructors, or credit), the article describes one of the most important Web-based educational projects in existence. Millions of students from around the world have taken advantage of the online materials in English, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. MIT deserves a great deal of credit for undertaking such a bold and expensive experiment.

Meanwhile, Harvard has been very cautious in its own experiments involving Internet-based education. The Harvard Extension School has the most experience with online education, and has developed some interesting Second Life-based courses with the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center, but the University as a whole has lagged in terms of sharing lectures, course materials, and research with the rest of the world.

This is not the first time I've blogged about this problem. Here's an excerpt from last year's post, Yale to offer free course video over Internet. Why not Harvard?:
... Why isn't Harvard taking more of a lead in sharing its academic resources with the global community? We see some piecemeal efforts involving individual schools and departments placing some class materials on the Internet for public consumption. FAS and the Harvard Extension School have actually posted Computer Science podcasts online, but video of class sessions is closed off to the public -- if you want to see anything more than a few samples, you have to pony up thousands of dollars to register for the classes, even if you aren't taking them for credit.

Yes, I understand that video production is expensive, and FAS wants to turn online video into a sustainable endeavor. But it is possible to strike a balance between serving the global public (one of former President Summers' big interests) and creating a successful, self-funding academic program. Can't Harvard at least match Yale's efforts, and provide some complete courses online for free without credit? I mean, seriously -- how big is Harvard's endowment now -- $29 billion dollars? Can't Bok or Knowles sign off on a little seed money and staff time to get something off the ground, perhaps using Extension School Distance Ed programming from previous years?
I have another proposal for Harvard: How about organizing a free, indexed, online database of educational research from Harvard and other institutions? In the electronic age, it's remarkable that almost all of the research and analysis taking place in colleges and universities today ends up as droplets of ink arranged on thin white rectangles of processed wood pulp, intended for an audience of one -- a professor responsible for issuing grades. This knowledge is almost never shared with other researchers or the public, thereby stifling learning and the spread of human knowledge. In the age of print, universities had an excuse. Now that the Internet is here, there is no reason to keep this information stuffed in filing cabinets or locked up in individual hard drives.

Would such a project be difficult to carry out? Sure. But MIT has proved that massive online educational initiatives can work and can yield tangible benefits for the public.

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