Harvard asks alumni to donate time for free online course

Elite college alumni are used to receiving requests for money from their alma mater, but Harvard’s appeal to thousands of graduates on Monday was something new: a call to donate their time and their intelligence to the growing field of online education.

For the first time, Harvard opened a humanities course, The Ancient Greek Hero, as a free online course. In an email on Monday, he asked former students who had taken the course at university to volunteer as online mentors and discussion group leaders.

The new online course is based on Professor Gregory Nagy’s Ancient Greek Hero Concepts, a popular offering since the late 1970s that has been taken by some 10,000 students.

The online version, which started last week and will run until the end of June, has 27,000 registered students. Its program includes Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, dialogues from Plato, poetry from Sappho and other works.

“I’m 70, and frankly, at my age, reaching more students in a class than I’ve had in decades is amazing, and I love it,” Dr. Nagy said.

One of the challenges of “Massive Open Online Courses,” or MOOCs, is managing their size and encouraging thousands of students to engage with each other because not all of them can converse with the professor. Tapping into a deep pool of alumni offers at least a partial way around this problem, one that a few schools have considered trying.

Claudia Filos, the course’s content and social media editor, said that in some MOOCs, discussions “tend to get derailed”. The hope for the Greek hero class is to have enough people watching – asking pointed questions, highlighting clever comments – to prevent this from happening.

About ten former professors of Dr. Nagy in the class will lead the discussions, with the help of a larger, yet undetermined number of former students. Both groups will work without pay; the email to the alumni said the job would require three to five hours a week.

A dozen recent alumni had been recruited before Monday’s email was sent, Ms. Filos said. Those who express interest will be shortlisted, “and they should be made aware of the material,” she said.

In addition, Dr. Nagy said that about a dozen people, including Ms. Filos, were involved in creating the course, and that about 10 scholars from Harvard and elsewhere will help review and evaluate some of the work of the students. Most assessments will be done by other students, an approach taken in many other MOOCs.

It’s been just over a year and a half since a Stanford professor proposed the first MOOC, showing that the audience for such a course could number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Since then, the field has developed at a steady pace.

Last year, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded edX, one of the few companies offering online courses at prestigious universities. The University of California, Berkeley joined edX a few months later, and several other colleges, including the University of Texas system and Georgetown, announced they would offer courses through it.

Most Harvard MOOCs have been in technical and scientific fields, with some in the social sciences. Starting with the Greek Heroes course, the university will also offer an array of humanities courses.

EdX courses, like most MOOCs, are free and don’t offer credit, but students can earn a certificate of completion.