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Libraries as Cyber-Classrooms: HarvardX Expands Access to Library Collections

The Harvard Library/HarvardX collaboration shares the University’s resources with online learners.

Original works from library collection used in professor Elisa New's course.

August 27, 2013—“It gives one chills to see [Dickinson’s] original manuscripts—to be able to picture where her eccentric and significant dashes were originally placed,” said Elisa New, Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature. New’s HarvardX fall course, “Poetry in America,” will include several lectures filmed in Harvard libraries and feature items from libraries' collections.

HarvardX—launched in parallel with EdX, the not-for-profit online learning enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT—allows faculty members like New to reimagine their teaching using new technologies to reach a global audience of learners. While MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are frequently associated with video lectures and discussion forums, New is incorporating what she believes is one of Harvard’s most significant assets—its libraries. “We have extraordinary resources in the Harvard libraries,” she said.

Additionally, New will tape segments in the libraries that feature distinguished individuals—such as a reading and discussion with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in the Harvard Law School Library.

Several staff members contributed to New’s effort, including Christina Davis, curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, and Leslie Morris, curator of modern books and manuscripts at Houghton. Davis has opened the Poetry Room in Lamont for filmed roundtable discussions and offered her expertise to help select relevant materials from the library collection. “We rely on her heavily as we try to develop how to show poems on screen,” New said. Morris has provided a wealth of support, including providing an introduction to a taped session on Dickinson for high-school teachers.

Morris believes collaborations between the libraries and HarvardX will benefit both. “HarvardX is an exciting next step for the Library, embedding the rich Harvard collections firmly within teaching and learning on a global scale,” she said. “For 20 years, we've been welcoming Harvard and area faculty into Houghton to teach with original materials, and in the last decade, we've digitized some of our most-in-demand rare books and manuscripts to make them more widely available.”

Morris and New are excited to see the process unfold. “Unlike simply presenting digital images within the Library's website, courses such as Elisa New's ‘Poetry in America’ add an interactive context, really engaging with the material,” Morris said. “It's not static; it's alive in a way that before you could only experience within the Houghton classroom.”