By Richard Pérez-Peña
Alumni of elite colleges are accustomed to getting requests for money from their alma mater, but the appeal that Harvard sent to thousands of graduates on Monday was something new: a plea to donate their time and intellects to the rapidly expanding field of online education.
For the first time, Harvard has opened a humanities course, The Ancient Greek Hero, as a free online class. In an email sent Monday, it asked alumni who had taken the course at the university to volunteer as online mentors and discussion group managers.
The new online course is based on professor Gregory Nagy’s Concepts of the Ancient Greek Hero, a popular offering since the late 1970s that has been taken by some 10,000 students.
The online version, which began last week and will run through late June, has 27,000 students enrolled. Its syllabus includes Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” dialogues by Plato, poetry by Sappho and other works.
“I’m 70, and frankly, at my age, to reach more students in one course than I have in decades is astonishing, and I love it,” Nagy said.
One of the challenges of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, is managing their sheer size, and encouraging thousands of students to engage each other, since they cannot all converse with the professor. Tapping into a deep pool of alumni offers at least a partial way around that problem, one that a few schools have discussed trying.
Claudia Filos, editor of content and social media for the course, said that in some MOOCs, discussions “tend to run off the rails.” The hope for the Greek heroes class is to have enough people monitoring — asking pointed questions, highlighting smart comments — to prevent that from happening.
About 10 of Nagy’s former teaching fellows in the class will direct discussions, with help from a larger, still-undetermined number of former students. Both groups will work unpaid; the email to alumni said the work would require three to five hours a week.
About a dozen recent former students were recruited before Monday’s email was sent, Filos said. Those who express interest will be screened, “and they have to be brought up to speed on the material,” she said.
In addition, Nagy said that about a dozen people, including Filos, were involved in creating the course, and that about 10 academics from Harvard and elsewhere will help review and rate some of the students’ work. Most of the assessments will be done by fellow students, an approach taken in many other MOOCs.
It has been just a year and a half since a Stanford professor offered the first MOOC, showing that the audience for such a class could be in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Since then, the field has expanded at a brisk pace.
Last year, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded edX, one of a handful of ventures offering online courses from prestigious universities. UC Berkeley joined edX a few months later, and several more colleges, including the University of Texas system and Georgetown, have said they will offer classes through it.
Most Harvard MOOCs have been in technical and scientific fields, with some in the social sciences. Starting with the Greek heroes course, the university also will offer an array of humanities classes.
EdX courses, like most MOOCs, are free and do not offer credit, but students can earn a certificate of completion.