Teaching Online and Hybrid Courses

Overview ›      Harvard & edX Resources ›      Other Resources ›

An "online course" can mean any several things:

  • A distance learning course is the online analogue of a limited-enrollment, for-credit course.
  • A Massive Open Online Course [MOOC] is an open-enrollment course, the vast majority of which currently do not provide credit beyond a completion certificate.
  • In a hybrid course some instruction is delivered online, but some still occurs in a campus or classroom setting.
  • Many variations are possible, such as having all instruction and student work take place online but with in-person discussions, office hours and/or exams.

Online courses can offer many advantages in terms of flexibility and access:

  • Instruction may take the form of live video streams, pre-recorded video or audio, text, or student exercises embedded within instructional media, or a combination of these.
  • Course development and deployment may be less constrained by the traditional academic calendar.
  • If the course allows for it, students can similarly do their coursework with fewer calendar or schedule constraints.
  • A larger and/or more varied student population may be reached.
  • Online course platforms typically feature data tracking of student access and performance which can aid in learning assessment and educational research.
  • MOOCs in particular provide a "large N", allowing for more fine-grained research opportunities such as assessing differentiated instruction and assessment methods.

However, there are possible downsides to online education; many of these are a consequence of the inevitable limitations of having a network mediating all interactions, the scalability to large numbers of geographically dispersed students, or both:

  • While online platforms can be used to foster active learning by students, they may also induce student passivity if a course relies overmuch on video-based instruction.
  • Interpersonal interactions which occur fairly naturally in a campus setting need to be deliberately engineered online, if they are possible at all.
  • Even simple assignments may require having special tools developed in order for students to do them online.
  • Providing appropriate feedback to students so they can progress in their learning can be a huge logistical and cultural challenge.
  • Best practices for assessing student work, especially in non-technical and non-introductory courses, have not yet been determined.
  • The anonymity allowed by only knowing your students and their work through the internet opens up questions of academic integrity and its verification.
  • In principle, relying on an online platform to deliver a course may result in a long-term reduction in workload for the instructor(s), but the initial overhead of setting up an online course is usually much higher than anticipated and the long-term time savings may be more than overcome by ongoing course-management and updating tasks.

Of course, comparing residential and online courses is somewhat of an "apple and oranges" exercise, given the potential large differences in student numbers and demographics. Your choice to offer a course online will likely be motivated by the opportunity to reach more or different students, or the same students in a different way, rather than by issues of course management.

Harvard & edX Resources


Regardless of which platform you intend to use, if you are developing a course, a lesson, or a standalone module for online or hybrid teaching that includes Harvard undergraduates, the Bok Center's staff can help you design it for best student learning and effective assessment. Please contact the Bok Center at bokcenter@fas.harvard.edu.

See also these Harvard platforms for online education:

Note that, essentially, "HarvardX" comprises the courses (including their content, students, instructors and support) while "edX" is the underlying delivery platform.

Other Resources


Other sources of information on MOOCs and online education providers include:

  • Vanderbilt's page on MOOCs
  • CMU's Open Learning Initiative, which bases its online courses around "cognitive tutoring"
  • The Khan Academy, prominent provider of educational videos
  • The Great Courses, provider of well-received course lectures
  • Class Central, an aggregator of open online courses
  • MIT's OpenCourseWare, which provides MIT courses' materials (but not actual courses)
  • iTunes U, Apple's proprietary platform
  • A video describing results from Mayer and Moreno's work on multimedia learning (note: this is about animation, not captured video!) See also their 2002 and 2003 Ed.Psych articles