Harvard goes all in for online courses
The stress is on production values, props, and, yes, scholarship
By Marcella Bombardieri
May 18, 2014
CAMBRIDGE — The discussion between two Harvard historians one recent morning was a little bit Ivory Tower, a little bit Hollywood.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Andrew Gordon, both preparing to teach a new breed of free online classes, met in the iconic Widener Library — bequeathed to Harvard University by the family of a Titanic victim — to discuss a topic in social history: the influence of the sewing machine on Japan’s modernization. They were surrounded not by leather-bound volumes but by a multimillion-dollar production studio and no fewer than five bustling staff members adjusting cameras and microphones and ensuring the scholars made their points clearly.
The production values were taken at least as seriously as the scholarship. As the professors discussed the international impact of the ornate turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine on display between them, the crew monitored three cameras and debated which lighting source would reflect off Gordon’s glasses or wash out Ulrich’s face.
When Gordon brushed his hand on his lapel, creating a tiny static blip, they filmed a second take. When Ulrich moved a book off the sewing machine’s oak table between takes, they put it back, then filmed her picking it up so the book would not magically disappear in the video.
Quietly, Harvard has built what amounts to an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, high-end classes that some prestigious universities are offering for free to anyone in the world, generally without formal academic credit. Contrary to the popular image of online classes consisting largely of video from a camera planted at the back of the lecture hall, Harvard is increasingly using mini-documentaries, animation, and interactive software tools to offer a far richer product. Continue reading…
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