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Publish and Perish?

Blogging Harvard courses could revolutionize open education — if its contributors aren’t expelled first
By SHARON STEEL  |  February 28, 2008

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Professor Tal Ben-Shahar is a resident rock-star lecturer on Harvard’s campus. In his Positive Psychology class — which saw enrollment balloon to more than 800 students in 2006, making it then the largest at Harvard (ousting Introduction to Economics for a brief period) and attracting significant media attention — Ben-Shahar strives to help Harvard students become happier individuals. It’s Ivy League therapy with a pass/fail grade! “Happiness is much more contingent on our state of mind than on our state or the state of our bank account,” he says in the first lecture of this spring’s semester. It’s a theme that will reverberate throughout the course — one you could study firsthand if you were enrolled at the oldest and arguably most famous university in the US.

Or, you could just read a play-by-play, creative-response blog post about Ben-Shahar’s lectures on the Final Club, a new Web site co-founded by Harvard alums 24-year-old Andrew Magliozzi and 25-year-old Jay Bacrania. In fact, you can read six of the currently active blogs about Harvard lectures, on topics ranging from animal cognition to “Media and the American Mind,” without ever once stepping foot in the Yard. Magliozzi and Bacrania are changing the concept of open education, and looking to blow open the hallowed halls of Harvard. The only problem? Their alma mater hasn’t quite caught up with the digital revolution they’re trying to helm.

The Final Club, which pays students to morph their class notes into thoughtful reaction-paper-type essays, sounds good on principle, but is actually in violation of school rules. Since the 1930s— when private tutoring schools surfaced around campus, paying for lecture notes and papers, and creating cramming courses — the Harvard handbook has stated that students who sell class materials are “liable and may be required to withdraw.”

Grassroots, ground-up
Magliozzi and Bacrania’s mission isn’t exactly a rebellious one. Their site is operating in the spirit of the non-commercial open-course-ware movement, which started at MIT in 2000, when the school decided to give away educational materials online. The idea has since spread to 11 campuses across the country, as well as abroad, via the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which seeks to extend the reach, impact, and development of open education.

Like its predecessor, the Final Club currently offers student-produced content gratis. In the future, though, its goal is to charge for special content features and to generate revenue by selling Web site ads. That is, if both students and self-learners can embrace the idea, which would require what Magliozzi calls “a grassroots, ground-up campaign.”

Given that vision, the site and its founders are straddling an awkward line. Since participating professors have allowed the Final Club to blog on their courses, it’s likely been granted some amount of immunity from punishment. Individual bloggers, however, remain at risk — a gamble that Magliozzi and Bacrania seem willing to take.

“The General Counsell is very much aware of what we do,” says Magliozzi (who is the son and nephew, respectively, of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, a/k/a Click and Clack of WBUR’s Car Talk fame). “We have advertisements up on Harvard’s student-employment Web site saying, ‘We will pay you to blog a class.’ And people respond to those ads. So it’s no secret . . . I don’t think it’s a big deal. The spirit of the law is exclusionary. This is the exact opposite.”

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