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Commentary: It Takes More Than High School

<p>Online learning is not only a chance to experience college but a skill essential for it.</p>
Student studying
Young thoughtful man using laptop. Idea concept

This fall, anyone with Internet access will be able to participate in 10 different Harvard University courses and learning modules, from “Fundamentals of Neuroscience” and “Health and Society” to “Poetry in America” and “China.” These offerings are a part of HarvardX, an ongoing, university-wide initiative for open online learning and educational research.

These are not a collection of grainy videos taken from the back of a classroom and uploaded on YouTube. These are opportunities for immersion, to participate in an online community, and to obtain formative feedback from assessments. Our videos and interactive tools are models of the kinds of presentations, discussions, and settings in which learning occurs here on campus.

For high school students, these offerings are a no-cost and low-commitment way to experience a slice of academic life in higher education. They reflect the breadth of the opportunities that many colleges can offer, as well as the immense dedication that successful completion of a college-level course requires. High school students who commit themselves to online learning are not only gaining a college class experience, but they are also demonstrating skills that are increasingly essential for college classes, from strategic searching to critically evaluating the authority of an online source.

As a statistics teacher, I expect my students to be able to navigate online spaces, where excellent digital tutorials are readily available, and participate productively in online communities, which can support their learning long after my course ends. They already watch my videos, post on my discussion forums, and access content from around the world. The distinction between online and in-person learning is increasingly fuzzy, a dichotomy that motivates policy debates but has little relevance to a student who wants to learn or a teacher who wants to teach.

The question for high school educators, parents, and policymakers should be about how online learning environments and in-person, classroom experiences can be mutually transformative. As a teacher, I can take everything available online and use it to transform my classroom practices. In addition, I and my students can create online learning environments or transform existing ones through our participation. This is occurring here at Harvard now, as the first wave of HarvardX instructors are using their online offerings as resources for their own on-campus courses. In the meantime, they are exploring new ways to use their time in class, including debates, games, discussions, presentations, projects, and assessments. Undergirding all of this is our dedication to educational research using rich new forms of online data.

If you believe “online education” is something that opposes or detracts from learning in a physical classroom, then I encourage you to learn from what students are already doing: blending the two to suit their own interests and needs. HarvardX is not only an opportunity to experience college but is also, itself, an example of the mutual transformation of online and in-person learning environments. As high schools focus on the goal of preparing students for college, they should embrace this opportunity for mutual transformation, as well.