Online engagement: Designing a learner-centered HarvardX course

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Diane MooreDiane Moore, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies and Education, collaborated with HDS and FAS colleagues to produce a six-module, online course offering through HarvardX called World Religions Through Their Scriptures. They designed all digital material for optimal engagement of the 130,000 enrolled students: “It’s essential to provide language and tools in order for students from diverse worldviews, religions, experiences, ages, and regions of the world to constructively interact around topics that often divide us.”

The benefits: Enabling interaction and discussion augmented the course experience for the 36,000 enrolled in her module. Moore was surprised by the quality and thoughtfulness of online threads: “The students—their voices, experiences, and contexts—became course resources. Engaging with others increased their retention of the content.”

The challenges: Though impressed with the course video production, Moore and her colleagues were frustrated by current limitations within the edX platform’s course discussion boards. “Even though students were commenting and responding to one another, they were not notified about responses.” It was challenging for the course team to follow conversations and monitor course participation.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Experiment with tools to meet course needs. The teaching team used Unhangout, an MIT platform utilizing Google technology for live online forums, to accommodate large and small group discussions and also shared information via the course’s Facebook community.
  • The most authentic engagement is student generated. Unexpectedly, students began to share contact information and organize Unhangouts with one another outside of class time, including some instances where local communities organized group viewings and discussions of course content. “The opportunity for community building is more than we even know.”
  • Socializing discussion culture keeps participation on track. “So many conversations about religion quickly devolve into declarative assertions about the ‘Truth’ of a particular perspective or devotional interpretation. We really wanted to create a respectful classroom where students were open-minded and eager to learn with and from one another, and to see the diversity of perspectives in the class as an asset instead of a liability.” Moore says they reinforced these goals throughout the course via the syllabus, videos, and discussion prompts. Students themselves began discouraging peers from veering into unproductive conversations, and the team was compelled only three times to remove students who did not adhere to the discussion rules.

Bottom line: The sense of the community, fostered by multiple engagement mechanisms, only strengthened over the course of the eight sessions. Moore is confident that further development of the edX platform will increase learner engagement, including opportunities for community convening outside online courses.