Can an Online College Course Live Up to Students’ Expectations?

By and 01/20/2015

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The Washington Post reports that a New York philanthropist has made a $1 million donation to EdX—an online course provider established by MIT and Harvard University— and proposed that it offer the first year of college online for free. But will students be happy with such courses?

We got our first glimpse at an answer to this tough question by teaching “Saving Schools:  History, Politics and Policy in U. S. Education,” our first Massive Open Online Course. You can still take the course (actually 4 mini-courses) online, free of charge. And until January 25, you can take the second offering of the course for credit at Harvard Extension School by following the registration information at the bottom of this blog post.

Professor Paul  Peterson provides the same content that is provided in his residential course for Harvard College students. Postdoctoral Fellow Anna Egalite and a recent Harvard graduate, Matthew Ackerman, are the teaching fellows who lead the online discussions.

What did we learn from teaching the course? Most importantly, we discovered that interest in education policy is incredibly diverse. Our students came from all walks of life—a reality TV show segment producer, a wedding photographer and videographer, a male model, a former staffer in the United States Congress, a part-time professional poker player, an entrepreneur, a Department of Homeland Security employee, a missionary pastor, numerous teachers, and a high school senior. They came from across the United States—from New Port Richey, Florida to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia—and across the world, with enrollees in Italy and Australia rounding out the roster.

What drew these diverse individuals together and motivated them to study the U.S. education system? Once again, the stories differ dramatically. As one person told us, “Although I am a teacher, I feel that I am ill-informed when it comes to education policy in the US. This is extremely bothersome for me because as teachers we need to be the most informed in order to successfully help our students.” An investigator for a non-profit law firm told us he enrolled in Saving Schools to better understand his clients: “I am most interested in learning about the forces in American education that . . . graduate significantly underperforming students that too often end up serving adult hard time, or losing their lives, in correctional facilities”. A missionary pastor told us, “My plan is to open schools across Africa and other continents.” A student recently retired from a career in finance told us, “I am keen to develop better appreciation, credibility and ideas to make a contribution to K-12 education.”

Did the course live up to these ambitious expectations? At the outset, we promised no silver bullets, just a commitment to thoroughly examine the pros and cons of many of the major education reforms being proposed today. One student expressed enthusiasm for the asynchronous discussion board,” In a classroom there are usually only a few students that always participate and state their opinions, but on the board everybody gets to discuss.” Others reacted to the course content: “This class is making me realize many assumptions of mine were wrong” and “This has been incredibly enlightening.” Some enjoyed the balanced discussion: “The videos and course as a whole did a really strong job of presenting both sides of contentious topics in education reform.” Summing it up, one student said, “It turned out to be a “crash course” of sorts on the state of American education and has already enlightened my work in the nonprofit sector.”  And for the teachers— the most common profession represented among our students— what did they think? One high school teacher told us, “I have been teaching for ten years, and I did not know many of the things we learned in this course. I think this course should be a requirement to anybody going into teaching.”

Finally, we learned that an online course can be as satisfying to students as any other course. Course ratings were identical to the average for all Harvard extension courses in Fall 2014, online or not (4.2 on a 5 point scale, where 5 is the “excellent” rating). Admittedly, 8% of those who evaluated us indicated they would not recommend the course to others. Nonetheless, we were pleased that 62% said they would recommend the course with enthusiasm and another 31% said they were likely to recommend it.

To learn more about the course, watch the course’ trailer below:

—Anna Egalite and Paul E. Peterson

Course registration for the Spring Semester of the Harvard Extension School course, ‘Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education’ is open until January 25, 2015. More information is available here.

Paul E. Peterson is a professor in the government department at Harvard University and directs the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG). Anna Egalite is a PEGP Postdoctoral Fellow.

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