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.”
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.”
“That’s wonderful,” says Arthur Miller, a professor at New York University’s School of Law, of the Final Club’s objective, “but that doesn’t mean that people should profiteer off it. The irony is the [blogger] could be nailed under the handbook, and these other guys might not be nailed.”
The Final Club — the name itself is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of the secret, elite undergraduate social clubs that aren’t recognized by Harvard — comprises two components. The first is what Magliozzi and Bacrania call “course blogs,” which consist of student-composed essays and personal musings on a class. In his American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac course blog, for instance, “Fauxneme,” a grad student, writes of Jefferson’s Declaration: “Interestingly, the Declaration fell out of favor quickly. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that people began to reclaim the language and importance of the declaration. This may be because the bulk of the text is Jefferson’s list of 27 grievances, and God help you if you ever have to read all of them.”
The second piece of the Final Club involves linked annotations designed to assist in the reading of public-domain, classic works of literature. These function as explanatory footnotes to the full text: a Cliffs Notes–like study guide that you read with, not instead of, a book. Anyone can contribute an annotation to the books posted on the Final Club’s Web site (unlike course blogs, which can only be written by Harvard students). At the moment, though, they’re contributed almost solely by “sponsored annotators,” who are likewise paid to seed such content throughout the site.