From Harvard to HarvardX: Are we there yet?

Digitization is reshaping the higher education supply chain and now is the time to choose which side of history to be on.

Today’s higher education supply chain is ripe for disruptive changes.

The year was 1892 and the world was booming with industrial activities where the telegraph, the railroads, and the automobiles were all just around the corner. On the education front, a brave group of pioneers known as the Committee of Ten led by Charles William Eliot, the President of Harvard University then, recommended the mass standardization of the American school curriculum [1]. This would become the cornerstone of the higher education supply chain as we know it today where a highly standardized set of courses is developed by educational institutions and offered to students who physically attend the classes [2].

Over 100 years later, when the internet and aviation technology have long made the 19th century inventions obsolete, remarkably our higher education supply chain remained much the same. Although considered revolutionary at the time for bringing education to the masses, factory style education is ill suited for today’s dynamic students. First, the students who seek higher education today are a very diverse group with different cultural and biological traits that required tailored approaches. Second, the adoption of social media has led to shorter attention span not suitable for long lectures. Third, the one-way lecturing format leaves professors without any timely student feedback. Last and most importantly, students are still expected to physically travel to their classes when quality teaching and other media content are just clicks away on their devices that are becoming the competing medium for their attention [3].

In summary, these changes in student behavior are critical to the future success of institutions like Harvard because the part of their educational offering that emphasizes standardized curriculum and mass lecturing is rapidly losing appeal among the millennials. Furthermore, there is a realistic threat that other elite institutions could beat Harvard in the race to embrace digitization.

Is HarvardX the silver bullet?

As steps to embrace technology and cope with the supply chain trends mentioned above, Harvard has taken a number of initiatives to digitalize teaching content in recent years.

HarvardX was launched in 2012 as a university-wide initiative to enable faculty to create online learning experiences and to inspire breakthrough in online pedagogies. To date the platform has created more than 82 courses, generated over 110,000 course certificates, and served 1.5 million course participates [4]. Also in 2012, edX was set up in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”) as a massive open online course platform that featured a diverse set of courses.

These efforts have allowed Harvard to offer students the flexibility to watch the lectures at their pace and leisure. In addition, the massive data generated through these platforms offered faculty a rare window into the studying behavior of its students. However, these online courses also had major drawbacks as the lack of peer / instructor interaction led to low completion rate of only ~4% from time of registration [5]. So in essence, HarvardX might not be the silver bullet but a blended system where online is used to replace the disengaging lectures and the offline is used to provide the critical human interactions could be the real future of the industry.

Looking ahead: The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.

Given the importance of the online content that offer millennials flexibility and the critical human interactions offline that help them build social skills, a blended learning experience is critical for Harvard to maintain its lead in this new digital age. More specifically, Harvard should consider the following action plan, which has been proven effective at San José State University in terms of boosting class average from 59% to 91% in its Electronic Engineering course [6].

  • Identify a list of underperforming lecture style courses in terms of student performance and feedback as potential grounds for innovation.
  • Carefully redesign these courses into blended learning experiences where online content can replace offline lectures and the freed lecture time can be turned into in-class team projects and problem-solving sessions.
  • Run controlled test where select sessions of each course can be offered in blended format while the others in traditional offline format. The resulting data can be leveraged to continuously improve these courses.

Overall, Harvard has made meaningful progress to cope with the powerful digitization trends reshaping its industry. However, to repeat the success of the Committee of Ten, the organization still has a long and treacherous journey ahead.

Unanswered question: I-Professor to the rescue?

Given the accelerating speed of technological changes, the wild card is the possibility that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence can just render any newly developed teaching model obsolete again. So in the end, can elite institutions really embrace change as the only constant and prevail for another 100 years?


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[1] Hertzberg, Hazel W. (Feb 1988). Foundations. The 1892 Committee of Ten. Social Education, v52.

[2] Groen, Mark (Spring–Summer 2008). “The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools”. American Educational History Journal.

[3] Hicks, S.D. (2011). “Technology in today’s classroom: Are you a tech-savvy teacher?”. The Clearing House.

[4] Harvard University. “HarvardX Year In Review 2015 – 2016”.

[5] Tamar Lewin (Dec 2013). “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought”. The New York Times.

[6] Khosrow Ghadiri (2013). “The Transformative Potential of Blended Learning Using  MIT edX’s 6.002x Online MOOC Content Combined with Student Team-Based Learning in Class”.


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Student comments on From Harvard to HarvardX: Are we there yet?

  1. Prior to starting at HBS, I participated in 3 courses through HBX, a subset of HarvardX and Harvard Business School’s online classroom platform. I was pleasantly surprised, even shocked at times by the effectiveness of the platform – I felt engaged with the online materials, I could interact in real-time with other classmates around the world that were online, and I appreciated the flexibility to complete courses around my existing schedule constraints. I also participated in a live HBX case-method discussion before starting at HBS. The high level of functionality and technological advancement in both these experiences were extremely impressive. I’m surprised, therefore to read about such low course completion rates and mediocre feedback regarding this platform. While I personally agree that a blended curriculum of both online and offline academics may optimize learning and be more relevant for students in the increasingly digital age, I’m more optimistic about the possibilities for HarvardX.

    What was clear from using this interface, however is that producing HBX is a massive undertaking with significant cost. The live class was comparable to a broadcast television show, with a large set, many people managing video, sound and each student’s live camera feed (for cold calls), and an impressive combination of live camera and web-based student engagement activities. To regularly produce these classes and pay for teaching salaries likely presents significant costs to Harvard. As you mention, technology now becomes obsolete at an increasingly rapid pace; Harvard must regularly improve and innovate this online platform to remain relevant in this space. But is the cost of this production sustainable? Can Harvard continue to increase tuition costs and fund these courses, or will students reach a financial breaking point?

  2. Thanks for the interesting read. While I believe, online education is a key growth area for traditional universities, I don’t think it will replace traditional education anytime soon. Given this, I don’t think HarvardX is the silver bullet. While there is a great deal of research that suggests that online education is as effective, if not more than classroom education [1], I think there are several aspects of classroom education that I think are valuable and cannot be replaced:

    – Customizability of learning: Learning cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach. You have touched upon why online learning can help enable customizing curriculums. On the flip side, classroom learning can enable the teacher to tailor his / her style and content based on the pace of his students. Similarly, students that are falling behind and require additional help can approach their teachers for immediate help, which is not available in the current online learning environment.
    – Job opportunities: Employers currently place a high value on elite institutions like Harvard that they do not place on programs like HarvardX. While, online learning may gain acceptability in the future, the status quo will prevail until that time.
    – Human interaction / networking: Part of the benefit of an education is the human interaction and networking component of it. Online learning programs like HarvardX have tried to emulate this interaction through forums and social networking components, but these are not as effective as in-person meetings.

    I still think that online learning is critical for the 21st century and will provide significant benefit, especially in developing countries; however, I don’t think they will replace classroom learning in the near future.

    [1] Stack, Steven, “Learning outcomes in an online vs traditional course,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,

  3. You bring up a really interesting topic, and one that I agree, Harvard has done a particularly good job as compared to peer institutions. I wonder if that’s a factor of those “golden handcuffs” so to speak – since oftentimes it is the non-traditional institutions who provide electronic learning platforms, there are inherent biases against students participating. I wonder if the top universities will be willing or able to buck the public perception of anything online deemed as less legitimate, especially the likely negative reaction of their alum with deep pockets.

    Similarly with Ice Cream above, I agree that elite traditional institutions will always have a marketplace, and that classroom learning won’t be going away anytime soon. What I wonder is though, in the longer term when online education does become more acceptable, will that change the ways that universities operate to fundraise or gain revenue? Not knowing how universities make most of their money to function, I wonder if the digitization of education will lead to individuals just purchasing degrees because they can. And in that case, will that lead to universities changing the way they operate, forcing some of the smaller schools to focus on digitizing and marketing to international students?

  4. As far as online education goes, I think HBX was one of the most engaging, intuitive, and positive class experiences. That being said I still did not complete the class I enrolled in because of lack of accountability and lack of true interaction with a professor and/or students. We as humans will likely always require a significant element of, well, human interaction because that’s part of what makes us so.

    As you state, the blended learning model is the way to go and I can’t wait for our public education system to get on board. I think one of the biggest reasons people are afraid of this from the elementary and secondary schools is because they’re worried about how they are going to keep students occupied for hours a day if they’ve already sat through the pre-recorded lectures beforehand. Unfortunately they might have to actually engage students and change how they are teaching in such a significant way. We as humans are also a bit afraid of change. Ultimately I think we’ll find an amazing balance that will increase the prevalence of good access to education and increase the quality of current education. Blended learning all the way!

  5. Blue Ocean — really enjoyed your post. I wrote about something similar (Udacity’s attempt to become the go-to credentialing entity for technical occupations). I think you’re right to consider blended learning as a more sober and pragmatic alternative to the early MOOC efforts. There are few places where thoughtful technology application cannot be used to improved learning outcomes. Whether you’re San Jose State or Harvard, blending learning applications stand to improve education outcomes. We’ve only seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I would imagine classrooms will look very different for our children’s children.

    To answer your question regarding the sustainability of the broader concept of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities I think it’s useful to think of these entities of offering two related, but distinct, services: education and credentialing. The former represents the transfer of knowledge. This is where technology is particularly helpful and will only become more prominent going forward. The latter — certification or credentialing — serves as the “currency of exchange” in labor markets has almost nothing to do with technology. I imagine a world in which Harvard and its ilk offer value to their students that is increasingly more oriented to credentialing than knowledge transfer (which technology will increasing facilitate). Instead, social networks and the validation gained through acceptance will become the true value of a brick-and-mortar college experience. While edX and others might spell the democratization of education, they won’t spell the democratization of opportunity.

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