Harvard U. Will Offer Exclusive MOOCs to Alumni

You don’t need to be a Harvard University student to take a massive open online course from Harvard—throwing open the gates to all comers is the idea, after all. But being a Harvard graduate still has its perks, even within the democratized landscape of MOOCs.

The university plans to make some MOOC materials available exclusively to alumni, in an effort to help Harvard graduates reconnect with the university and one another. The program, called HarvardX for Alumni and first reported in The Harvard Crimson, might also include opportunities to interact directly with professors, a rare privilege in an open online course.

Beginning in March, HarvardX for Alumni will offer versions of seven Harvard MOOCs exclusively to graduates of the university. The courses will not be full-length MOOCs but “segments” that include some new material developed specially for graduates, according to Michael Rutter, a spokesman. Some professors might even travel to talk about the material at Harvard Clubs in different cities, Mr. Rutter said.

Is Harvard onto something? Efforts to integrate MOOCs into higher education’s credentialing system have stalled, and studies suggest that MOOCs tend to attract people who already have college degrees. So alumni relations and fund raising are areas where universities might find value in MOOCs.

John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, has written that MOOCs fit naturally into the universities’ efforts to rekindle relationships with potential donors.

“Prospective donors—alumni, other benefactors, even corporate and foundation executives—who take advantage of MOOCs will likely develop a greater appreciation for the institution and its faculty and, therefore, a greater willingness to provide philanthropic support,” wrote Mr. Lippincott in Currents, the council’s magazine, last fall. “Offering major donors access to MOOCs on subjects of particular interest to them would represent a quantum leap from a faculty member giving a 30-minute talk at a campaign dinner.”

MOOC providers have struggled to reproduce traditional courses’ emotional connections and networking opportunities in online classes whose student populations are massive, mercurial, and far more diverse than the average college classroom. Strengthening existing ties among graduates, and their gratitude to alma mater, might prove easier.

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