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Starting as a Research Fellow with HarvardX

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Today, I'm starting a new position as the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow. I'm the first person to hold this position (along with Sergiy Nesterko, who will be starting July 1), so the exact scope of my responsibilities is evolving. Broadly speaking, my job is to conduct research on the learning experiences that people have on the HarvardX platform and to consult with HarvardX faculty in creating and facilitating courses, both to make them better for students and better designed to advance our knowledge of online learning.

Readers of this blog might have picked up a thread of ambivalence towards the flock of Massive Open Online Courses hatched in the wake of the publicity from Sebastian Thrun's Introduction to AI course at Stanford. I approach this new opportunity with a great deal of excitement and a similar degree of concern.

Probably the signature experience that shaped my attitude towards HarvardX was an HarvardX IP Hackathon put together by students at the Harvard Law School. About two dozen law students and other graduate students from around the university, with absolutely no vested interest in the IP policy of HarvardX, got together for the weekend to brainstorm and design a set of IP policies for HarvardX. One of their overwhelming concerns was how they could challenge the university to make this new initiative as broadly accessible and globally useful as possible, especially to people without access to high quality educational opportunities. Dozens of Harvard Law students donated their time to see HarvardX become more open, more broadly of service.

As Vic Vuchic, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation (the original funders of MIT's Open Courseware), argued in March of 2012 at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, the major cultural change sparked by the elite xMOOCs is that top-tier universities now boast of how many students they serve rather than how many they turn away. That change happened incredibly quickly, and it has filtered into the zeitgeist of the student body as exemplified by the IP Hackathon. There are many in the Harvard community who see HarvardX as an avenue to help tilt Harvard's incredible teaching resources more towards being of service to the wider world, and that's an exciting movement to be a part of and to try to shape and encourage. (I get the same sense from MIT undergrads serving as teaching assistants and research fellows for various MITx initiatives.) I think we can work together to create a series of learning experiences that advance human learning around the world.

On top of that, there are the data. Since my doctoral research on wikis, I've argued that new online platforms offer exciting new opportunities to leverage the continuous-time clickstream data collected by online learning environments to learn more about the process of learning. Regardless of what one might think of the contemporary state of online instruction on the edX platform, there are terrific opportunities to muster the resources of several great universities to learn more about learning online.

(There are a whole host of practical concerns as well: I like the bike commute; the Harvard gym is conveniently located; I'll be working with people with much better computational and quantiative skills than me and I'll learn a lot; I like Andrew Ho, the research committee chair of HarvardX, and find his work to be methodologically carefully, ideologically pragmatic, and practically useful; there will be some good opportunities to publish this work; I can keep teaching undergraduates at MIT, which I adored doing this semester; and so on.)

As I head into my first day of work (technically, as I sit here in new employee orientation), I have apprehensions as well.

My feelings about the role of xMOOCs in relation to both higher education labor markets and to student access and experience are too complicated to fully articulate here, but they are certainly a concern. My sense is that two main problems in higher education funding are rising health care costs and declining public support for funding higher education. In the best of circumstances, online learning tools might be used to let computers teach what they are best at teaching in order to reallocate human resources to where they are most valuable. In a world of scarcity, that's a good thing. Online tools might also be used to justify faculty cuts or the expansion of adjunct positions, and that would be a bad thing. I would be great if I could contribute to the former, and it would be terrible if I contributed to the latter.

A much greater risk, I'd tentatively argue, is not that xMOOCs cause harm, but more that they prove to be mostly irrelevant. It's possible that the prophecies are correct and the edu-Revelation is right around the corner, and that online learning environments will offer personalized learning experiences at high scale for low cost, permanently transforming the development of human capacity. I think its probably more likely that most online courses end up being talking textbooks with auto-graded worksheets, useful in some particular circumstances with particular populations, but, like every previous generation of education technology, ultimately a disappointment that fails to fundamentally improve learning for students (though at least in this case, the development costs are born by affluent universities.)

And my deepest concern is that the people who will benefit from these new initiatives are those who already are privileged and advantaged. As I've argued since my doctoral research, there is a very real possibility that new learning experiences made widely accessible on the Internet will disproportionately benefit the affluent, who have the financial, social, and technical capital to take advantage of these new opportunities. The early reports from the first round of xMOOCs certainly contribute to these concerns—if 30% of Edinburgh's MOOC participants have BAs and an additional 40% have BA's and a graduate degree, then MOOCs may be creating new opportunities for lifelong learning for the affluent at a much greater rate than they are providing new learning pathways for the under-served.

I'm not sure that the benefits of emerging forms of high-scale online learning can outweigh these various risks, but I think it's possible. I think it's more likely to happen if the people on the HarvardX team are attentive to these risks and can approach these new ventures with a kind of skeptical optimism. I think I can help. I think it's worth a shot. So I'm hopping on board.

Spring has ended as early as it came late here in Boston, and that means my daughter and I will soon replace our Friday evening trip to the Boys and Girls Club pool with trips to Walden Pond. As I start with HarvardX, I think of Henry David Thoreau's scholarly commitment as he ventured to the shores of Walden Pond: "and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world." But, I'm hopeful that it won't all be meanness. I think we can take the hype surrounding MOOCs and harness that energy to create some valuable online learning experiences, without getting lead astray by the hype.

I look forward to sharing the journey here.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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