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“In what sense, if any, did you deserve to be admitted to Harvard College?”

That’s a question nearly 900 Harvard undergraduates saw on their final exam in 2008 for a class called “Justice.” (Students had to pick 3 questions to answer out of 7.) In their responses, they were presumably not expected to just give an overview of their high school achievements, but rather to make a careful argument in light of the class discussions about fairness, distributive justice, and affirmative action — that is, to demonstrate that they had learned something about ethical reasoning, the general education requirement that Justice fulfills.

This spring, perhaps tens of thousands of certificate-seeking students worldwide will also be tested to see if they’ve picked up anything from JusticeX, the corresponding upcoming course on edX, the online learning initiative founded by Harvard and MIT.

To be sure, the edX students won’t be asked the same question on their final — the course is open to anyone with an Internet connection, not just Harvard admittees. But that’s just the rub: edX just doesn’t have the resources to grade written responses in a free course that attracts a hundred times as many students as even one of the most popular courses at Harvard.

It’s not an unreasonable estimate, given that the two HarvardX courses that started in the fall attracted nearly 200,000 registrants total, according to the Harvard Gazette. Besides, Justice has already proved to be enormously popular on the Internet. The class’s recorded 2005 lectures have received millions of views on Youtube, no doubt not only because of the accessible subject matter — Is torture ever justified? Should gay marriage be allowed? — but also because of the engaging Socratic discussions Sandel involves the students in, often pitting classmates against each other. On justiceharvard.org, Internet users continue these debates in lengthy comment threads. No formal evaluation or recognition is given to these online fans of Sandel’s course, despite the pages of passionate paragraphs they are still spinning out years after the videos and reading lists were first made public.

But edX will be awarding certificates to students who pass its version of the Justice course. According to course coordinator Kerstin Haase, students will be assessed based on their performance on multiple-choice questions. That’s not to say motivated students won’t also be writing essay-length posts on the discussion boards in response to poll questions and other students’ opinions.

Still, without formal assignments, to what extent can the learning experience of courses like Justice — which for on-campus students includes group discussion sections and two papers — be replicated online?

Such concerns have been voiced most anxiously by scholars of the humanities.

“We cudgel our brains to think of online modules that might make sense for literary education. One of my colleagues suggested that we might teach punctuation this way,” MIT literature professor Ruth Perry wrote in the faculty newsletter. No satisfying answer to these questions seems to have emerged just yet. However, with its first offerings in the humanities and social sciences announced in December, edX will be trying out several approaches, including peer evaluations, limited enrollment, and new web tools that are still being built.

The new online classroom

ER22x: Justice is not the only big name on the list of new edX humanities courses to begin this spring. CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero, for instance, is one of the longest running courses at Harvard, which is also putting up a course from its law school, HLS1x: Copyright.

For its part, MITx will be offering 14.73x: The Challenges of Global Poverty. All of the instructors for these courses are distinguished in their respective fields, and they all list their own works in their courses’ reading lists.

Though moving classes online means losing some aspects of an traditional college course, the online format does bring new types of interaction to the table. For example, edX courses allow students to hold full discussions right next to any part of the learning sequence, whether it’s a video clip or a practice question.

But until discussion board participation can be evaluated without human intervention, edX and similar platforms like Coursera will still have to find ways to separate the wheat from the chaff if they’re going to offer certificates for course completion.

So far, edX has offered mostly computer science classes, for which evaluating large numbers of students is less of a problem. Multiple-choice questions or questions with numerical responses are reliably and objectively graded by computers. Automatic grading can even handle more open-ended questions, such as those that require the student to input an algebraic expression or to upload some code. Nor is a pair of human eyes needed to grade student work in the interactive circuits editor in 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, and other ways of bringing the laboratory online are actively being developed, according to edX spokesman Dan O’Connell.

While The Ancient Greek Hero doesn’t involve any lab work, its course staff also hopes to create an interactive online learning experience beyond watching videos and answering multiple-choice questions. In the new framework being developed, students will be able analyze ancient texts like the Illiad by making annotations at specific sections in the verse.

According to V. Judson Harward, who is helping with the technical aspects of “Heroes,” the course will tell the students, “Here are words and concepts you’ve been exposed to in the course, the lectures, the discussions — we’d like you to try to pick this passage apart.”

Since the system is still being developed, it’s unclear how student annotations will be graded. Jeff Emanuel, course “show runner,” told The Tech that edX wouldn’t just give higher marks to those who made more annotations. Instead, they’re going for “a combination of volume and quality.”

Engineering in poetry

A strategy being considered for Challenges of Global Poverty is peer evaluation. “EdX is working on a platform to incorporate case studies that people could work in groups on,” course instructor Esther Duflo wrote in an email to The Tech. These groups would communicate in chat rooms, prepare case studies, and then evaluate other groups’ work.

“Of course we are not yet sure this will work out,” Duflo noted.

Some of Coursera’s humanities courses are also using peer grading. Students in the Coursera version of Princeton’s A History of the World Since 1300, for example, were assigned to write six essays answering questions like “How did Cold War rivalries affect European decolonization?” But for each assignment, students were also asked to assess the essays of five of their peers according to a rubric.

The history course is one of Coursera’s offerings for which certificates are not awarded, as Princeton’s policy does not grant certificates for any of its courses on Cousera.

The Heroes team has decided to stay away from peer evaluation, according to Harward. “In the normal Heroes course as you’d expect, the course does double duty,” he said. The edX version will focus on close-reading skills and place less emphasis on the writing portion.

“Surprisingly, this course is a lot more like an engineering course than you might expect,” Harward said, going on to describe how ancient poets in the oral tradition would refer to characters like Dawn with different epithets like “rosy-fingered Dawn” depending on their placement in the rhythmic lines of verse. The course will also track the differing connotations of the word “hero” throughout history.

Emanuel stresses that he wants students to be able to apply these concepts rather than just regurgitate them, and hopes that the new annotations feature will make the course “every bit as rigorous” as the traditional course, which is writing-intensive.

As with Heroes, the online version of Challenges of Global Poverty is skimping on the writing assignments but keeping the more technical parts. Students of 14.73x will see all the numbers and graphs you might expect from an economics course.

A tradeoff

The only humanities course that will include traditional graded written assignments is Copyright, taught by William Fisher at Harvard Law School. But unlike the other courses on edX, Copyright has capped its enrollment to 500 students, who will be placed into sections of no more than 25 students each. Each section will be headed by a Harvard Law student, who will grade the exams.

“These [exams] will include questions commonly known as ‘issue-spotters’ in law school, which require students to read short narratives about real or fictitious disputes and then identify how existing law would direct their outcome, as well questions that ask students to craft normative arguments about how law should change in the future,” Nathaniel Levy wrote in an email to The Tech. Levy is helping Fisher coordinate the edX verison of Copyright, which is giving online students the real deal.

“Students in the edX course will receive the same types of exam questions as students in the HLS course,” he says.

In aiming for rigor and quality, Copyright has sacrificed massiveness and openness, the two characteristics that distinguish MOOCs from online courses and that attracted so much attention to platforms like Coursera and edX in the first place.

Unlike any of the other edX courses, Copyright requires students to apply for a spot. While the course doesn’t have any prerequisites or require any legal background, “applicants must be at least 13-years-old, have a good grasp of the English language, and be willing to devote eight hours per week to learning and discussing the material,” according to the course description. “When admitting participants, the course organizers will seek to create a group that is diverse along many dimensions, including country of residence, age, occupation, educational background, and gender.”

“Enrollment for the course is limited because we believe that high-quality legal education depends, at least in part, upon supervised small-group discussions of difficult issues,” the course description says. Course materials will still be made publicly available on Fisher’s website.

An uncertain future

Despite the limitations these new humanities courses are facing, it’s still uncertain what more work and future technologies will bring. Challenges of Global Poverty is seeing its first iteration in February, a date Duflo only found out about in November. Emanuel admitted that the interactive annotations system wouldn’t see its final version in 2013, and Fisher’s Copyright course is explicitly experimental.

But whether or not it will ever be possible for MOOCs to do justice to Justice and other writing-intensive courses, those involved with MOOCs seem excited to bring their visions to a global scale.

Harward noted that Heroes, a class that explores Greek classics, will reach students in south and southeast Asia, for instance — students perhaps in contact with other oral and literary traditions. It’s an opportunity to exchange insights.

“Ever since I heard about edX. I thought a course on poverty would be a wonderful thing to have available to a vast number of people,” Duflo said.

Harvard student Ding Zhou contributed reporting to this article.