Archive for October, 2013

HarvardX research: both foundational and immediately applicable

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

There is a difference between research and how innovation happens in industry. Research tends to be more foundational and forward-thinking, while innovation in industry is more agile and looks to generate value as soon as possible. Bret Victor, one of my favorite people in interaction design, summarizes it nicely in the diagram below.

Bret Victor's differences between industry and research innovation

HarvardX is a unique combination of industry and research by the classification above. The team I am part of (HarvardX research) works to generate research and help shape online learning now, as well as contribute to foundational knowledge. Course development teams, who create course content and define course structure, sit on the same floor as us. Course developers work together with the research team looking for ways to improve learning continuously and generalize findings beyond HarvardX to online and residential learning in general. Although the process still needs to be streamlined as we are scaling the effort, we are making progress. One example is the project on using assignment due dates to get a handle on student learning goals and inform course creation.

Here is how it got started.

As we were looking at the structure of past HarvardX courses, we discovered that there was a difference in how graded components were used across courses. Graded components include assignments, problem sets, or exams that contribute to the final grade of the course which determines whether a student gets a certificate of completion. Below is public information on when graded components occurred for 3 HarvardX courses.

The visualization above shows publicly available graded components structure for three completed HarvardX courses: PH207x (Health in Numbers), ER22x (Justice), and CB22x (The Ancient Greek Hero). Hovering the mouse over different elements of the plot reveals detailed information, clicking on course codes removes extra courses from display. For PH207x, each assignment had a due date preceding the release time of the next assignment (except the final exam). For the other two courses, students had the flexibility of completing their graded assignments at any time up until the end of the course.

When the due date passes on a particular graded component, students are no longer able to access and answer it for credit. The "word on the street" among course development teams so far has been that it's generally desirable to set generous due dates on the graded components as this promotes alternative (formative) modes of learning allowing students not interested in obtaining a grade to access the graded components. Also, this way students who register for a class late have an opportunity to "catch up" by completing all assignments that they "missed". However, so far it has been unclear what impact such due date structure has on academic achievement (certificate attainment rates) versus other modes of learning (non-certificate track, ie. leisurely browsing).

Indeed, one of the major metrics of online courses is certificate attainment - the proportion of students who register for the course and end up earning a certificate. It turns out that PH207x experienced the attainment rate of over 8.5%, which is the highest among all open HarvardX courses completed to date (average rate of around 4.5%). Does this mean that setting meaningful due dates boosts academic achievement by helping students "stay on track" and not postpone working on the assignments until the work becomes overwhelming? While the hypothesis is plausible, it is too early to draw causal conclusions. It may be that the observation is specific to just public health courses, or PH207x happened to have more committed students to begin with, etc.

While the effect on certificate attainment is certainly important, an equally important question to answer is what impact do due dates have on alternative modes of learning? That's why we are planning to start an A/B test (randomized controlled experiment) to study the effect of due dates, in close collaboration with course development teams. Sitting on the same floor and being immersed in the same everyday context of HarvardX allows for agile planning, so we are hoping to launch the experiment as early as November 15 or even October 31. The findings of the study have the potential to immediately inform course development for new as well as future iterations of current courses, aiming to improve educational outcomes of learners around the world and on campus.

HarvardX is a great example of a place where research is not only foundational but also immediately applicable. While the combination is certainly stimulating, I wonder to what extent this paradigm translates to other fields, and what benefits and risks it carries. With these questions in mind, I cannot wait to see what results our experimentation will bring and how we can use data to improve online learning.