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In other fields—[such as] the social sciences and humanities—it’s not really the mastery of information.
We do know, however, that the number of people participating in discussion forums keeps rising during the course. We know because we’ve actually polled the students on this, and they really like the online lectures. You can’t replicate exactly that in a purely online format.Students who take courses online through Harvard Division of Continuing Education pay top dollar to do this. They’re interested in getting the credential or degree, [and] we try to accommodate their schedules.They write papers, they do exams—every posting they make gets read and commented upon on by a teaching fellow or me. But if you’re serious about developing knowledge of a field and want a degree or credit, you go to the Division of Continuing Education.That means you have to be there and submit work every week. It’s lecture, particularly in the way in which edX has developed very sound approaches to giving lectures.

Which is, you don’t lecture people for more than five to seven minutes.At every section of the lecture, you stop, pause, give students a chance to answer questions and think about what they heard, and then move on. But discussion between the professor and the students, that’s so much better in person.Now, that doesn’t mean you might not have courses where you only have online discussion, and no intervention from the teaching staff. This is part of the larger mission of the university.However, I should say right away that we do have criteria here. We ask in every instance—before we try to develop a course or a module—how is this going to be turned back on the classroom? And we don’t have to have everything decided right at this moment.The fact that MIT and Harvard can afford to do this without expecting that they’re going to make money, as we try to figure out how we can actually do good things—for our students and for the world.
I think we’re so lucky as Americans to be in that situation with private universities that can afford to do that.RW: What do you think of for-profit companies getting involved in online education?
It seems there’s a battle between education’s traditionalists versus the would-be innovators.

My impression—and again I speak for myself—is that in the short term, we don’t expect any return on investment. We want to understand how we can be better educators, and how students can learn in an effective way that doesn’t require cramming at the last moment and forgetting 70 percent of what they’ve learned. And they exist for the advancement of knowledge and the possibility of sharing and learning.Peter K.
Bol is the Carswell Professor of East Asian Languages Civilization and Director of the Center for Geographic Analysis. He has chaired the Harvard Academic Computing Committee and provided one of HarvardX’s first online courses on China.

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