Drew Faust and friends

“This is a moment of transformation for education, and we want to be able to lead in a way that allows us to enhance our outreach to the world, even as it helps us understand new ways to teach our students on campus. The hunger for knowledge is so strong around the world. I feel [this] is a magnificent opportunity, but it is also a big responsibility for us to set a standard for online learning that upholds the most important aspects of higher education and its values, and allows Harvard to play a leadership role in shaping how education changes in the years to come.”
– Drew Faust, Harvard President


How universities embrace new technologies in the classroom and meet the increasingly global demand for education will determine their success in the coming decades. Today’s freshmen come to campus fully “wired,” with instant access to information. Likewise, anyone, anywhere who is eager to learn only needs an Internet connection to open a universe of knowledge.

Harvard has long been an innovator in the digital realm, offering online courses and other forms of learning resources to a global audience. Coming from Harvard’s schools, libraries, and museums, some of these are instructor-led, credit-bearing offerings; others are open lectures and self-paced learning resources; still others are simply repositories of Harvard’s treasured collections across a broad spectrum of domains. 

Merely keeping apace of change and responding to new trends and technologies, however, is no longer enough. A single mobile app can disrupt an entire industry within months. The rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses) over the past 18 months is a case in point for higher education. Called a “disruption” or “inflection point,” MOOCs have created both challenges and opportunities for students, faculty, and leaders. Most importantly, they have become a game changer.

With the rise of social networking, big data, and instant-everything, the only way to stay ahead is to shape the digital delivery of knowledge. In the words of Thomas Friedman, “we still need more research on what works, but standing still is not an option.” To advance academic excellence in our socially networked world Harvard must set the standard for online learning, re-imagining teaching and learning in-class, on-campus, across its schools, and beyond.

In response to such a critical and exciting time for Harvard and higher education, the University created the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning in September of 2014.

The Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

The Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) offers faculty and students support and services to create the best, highest-quality 21st century learning and research environment (on campus, online, and beyond). The ultimate aim is to ensure that Harvard remains the leader in teaching and learning innovation. The Vice Provost provides budgetary oversight of the efforts below, with input from the VPAL Advisory Committee.

HarvardX enables faculty to create and implement research-enabled online learning experiences for residential and online use

VPAL Research Group
A collaborative group of researchers from are working to advance the science of learning.

The VPAL office provides grants through HILT and other funds to carry out teaching and learning experiments; and it promotes best practices developed from these experiments.

These efforts are collaborative in nature and bottom-up rather than top down. VPAL works with the Schools to develop policies and best practices and foster closer collaboration with the Harvard Library, the museums, the Division of Continuing Education, and Harvard University Information Technology, as well as teaching and learning hubs such as the Bok Center.

All activities are sustained through a combination of current use funding, and new fundraising. Revenue experiments are in process.