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Harvard students told: No questions, please, we're filming

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 10, 2014 01:43 PM

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It’s often said that the best part of a Harvard education is the people—the all-star professors, the world-beating classmates. If that’s the case, then a policy in one class this semester is especially hard to reckon: Students in English professor Elisa New’s “Poetry in America” have been asked not to ask questions during lectures.

Students have been asked to keep quiet for the first 60 minutes of each 90-minute class, The Harvard Crimson reported recently, so that New's lectures can be recorded without interruption for rebroadcast via HarvardX, the university's free online education platform. In the article, New said that the request for student silence came from the videographers filming the class.

“The video team said, ‘No way, man. We’re not going to be able to [record student questions],’” she told The Crimson.

In an email, HarvardX spokesman Michael Rutter said it wasn't a Harvard policy to ask students to be quiet during videos, and it was up to professors to "make the final pedagogical decisions about what happens in their classrooms." (I sent an email to Elisa New asking her to clarify who made the decision to ask students to refrain from asking questions, and I'll post her reply when I receive it.) [Update: See below for her response]

New has tried to compensate for the mandated student silence by holding 30 minutes of discussion time following each lecture, and staying around after class to answer additional student questions.

Still, the idea of real live students being told to keep quiet in order to facilitate the creation of a virtual course seems to realize, in parody-worthy fashion, every fear we have about the growth of MOOCs—the massive, open, online lecture courses you can take for free, from anywhere in the world. Will universities’ global ambitions start to overshadow their commitment to the students who actually attend?

Former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis, who teaches computer science, wondered on his blog whether the policy represents the crossing of an "educational Rubicon." In a letter to The Crimson, Harvard history professor Mary Lewis wrote, "surely the world's best and brightest students don't compete mightily to get into Harvard only to become mere backdrops to Harvard's world stage."

Of course, as Harry Lewis also pointed out, students aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to ask questions in most lecture classes, so the actual pedagogical effects of the no-questions request are likely limited. But the idea of paying $50,000 a year to attend Harvard and then being told to keep quiet does start to raise the question of whether, in the realm of online education, the tail has begun to wag the dog.

UPDATE 3/12: I heard from Elisa New, who explained that this is an approach she has used in class before- "I have often (though not always) preferred to give my complete lecture and to entertain discussion afterwards," she wrote- and that the decision to ask students not to ask question during lectures that were being filmed for HarvardX applied to just a "few" lectures and was not a policy in any strict sense. She added, “course design from semester to semester is always shaped by a variety of factors, whether or not the newest technologies are among those factors.” She also noted, "If the result of your blog post encourages more people to check out my course and read poetry and discuss it (in-person, online, or quite frankly anywhere), that would be a wonderful thing."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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