Harvard recently announced four new edX classes, including a 12-week copyright course from Harvard Law School. The difference between “Copyright” and the rest of the subjects being offered through the open-source technology platform, though? Only 500 students are being given the opportunity to enroll, as opposed to the 100,000 who registered for Harvard’s first free massive open online courses prior to launch.
The course is being taught by Intellectual Property Law Professor William Fisher, who’s also the faculty director of the University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. When the class commences on January 28th, however, why won’t more students be participating? As the Copyright course description states:
Enrollment for the course is limited, in keeping with the belief that high-quality legal education depends, at least in part, upon supervised small-group discussions of difficult issues.
Each student will then be assigned to a section taught by one current or former student of Fisher’s Harvard Law School Copyright course. They will facilitate weekly group sessions of no more than 25 people in real-time, and students will finish the “semester” by taking a three-hour test much like the regular, in-class Harvard law students do.
The plus-side for those unable to enroll is that all of the course readings and recorded lectures will be made available to the public.
The restriction introduces an interesting idea, however. When talking about the downside of online education, class enrollment size continues to come up, largely because it takes a toll on the level of engagement between students and their instructors. When the same lecture is being viewed by hundreds of thousands of students, when is there time for either the students or the professors to ask questions or just go back and press rewind? As Julia Lawrence of Education News has pointed out:
Though online education offers students flexibility on how and when to view a lecture, it offers professors no reciprocal flexibility to tailor their lectures to the unique abilities and interests of the students.
So, should limiting an online course to 500 or so students be just a Harvard Law School thing, or an every massive open online course thing? Six million students could be taking at least one online course, but how many can you guarantee are actually mastering the material? For MOOCs to succeed moving forward, the focus will need to be on quality and quantity—the quality of the material and the quantity of the students trying to learn it.