A Decade of Innovation: Online Learning at Harvard

Published March 6, 2024


At Harvard Online, increasing access to education is our purpose. We are committed to positively impacting learners, wherever they may live, by making a Harvard-quality education available to anyone with an internet connection. 

Meeting this purpose requires a firm grasp on current innovations with eyes fixed on what comes next. At Harvard Online, we are always asking, “What does the future look like for teaching and learning?”


A Brief History of Online Learning at Harvard

Timeline of VPAL milestones since 2012


The Harvard Online brand launched in 2022 as part of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL), a multifunctional department that works across all of Harvard's 12 schools and has been furthering Harvard’s vision for online learning for more than a decade.

In 2012, Harvard, in partnership with MIT, launched the innovative platform edX to leverage the global connectivity of the internet to translate the University’s world-renowned education into new and widely accessible formats. An emergent learning modality, massive open online courses (or MOOCs), provided the opportunity to do just that.

True to their name, MOOCs are freely accessible to anyone with an internet-connected computer, allowing learners of diverse backgrounds from around the globe to experience the expertise of Harvard faculty. The original Harvard courses developed for the edX platform revolutionized online learning and confirmed Harvard as a leader in innovative pedagogical technologies.


Online Learning, A Solution in a Crisis

Harvard’s command of online learning became a critical asset for the University when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. When Harvard’s President Larry Bacow announced in-person classes would be suspended for the spring semester in March 2020, the entire University had to shift to a model of remote learning to limit the spread of coronavirus. 

By this time, VPAL already had years of experience in creating online courses and was uniquely positioned to provide its expertise and advice during this transition.  

Not only could online learning serve as an alternative to in-person classes in a time of crisis, it could also be leveraged to disseminate vital information to medical professionals serving communities around the world, best showcased in our Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19 course. 

Throughout the period of online learning necessitated by the pandemic, it became clear that VPAL’s contributions to the future of education and online learning made a larger impact, at Harvard and beyond, than what was originally imagined. What had started as a means of opening the (virtual) doors to a Harvard education for a global audience became the saving grace of the core educational mission of the University for over a year of online learning. During that period of forced innovation, Harvard experimented with new teaching formats and technologies, and pushed the boundaries of what we thought we could achieve with an online classroom.

In January 2021, VPAL launched its first certification courses in partnership with Harvard Business School Online. Aimed at professionals and organizations, these advanced online courses leveraged the cutting-edge technology of the HBSO platform and case study method to diversify the offerings of Harvard to a global online audience.

After a thorough study of best practices and Covid-era innovations, VPAL was positioned to lead the University into the next phase of online learning. In early 2022, the Harvard Online was introduced to encapsulate and expand upon VPAL’s original values and mission, bringing together courses from multiple online learning platforms, including edX and HBSO, in an expanded repertoire with thoughtful curation around themes including health care leadership and digital futures. 

As of February 2024, Harvard Online proudly offers 132 courses with over 25 million learners who have earned 504,337 certificates—and counting!


Looking Ahead

With eyes always on the horizon, the Harvard Online team is committed to executing the vision of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, expanding our course offerings with innovative formats, engaging a global community of learners, and shaping the future of education by leveraging the latest research and technology. 

For instance, the advent of generative AI promises a paradigm shift in the educational framework, and Harvard Online is poised to lead the way. Most recently, our colleagues at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching (HILT) hosted their annual conference Teaching in the Age of AI: Nurturing Connection and Empowering Learners, and it inspired us to think about the value of expert-led conversation in delineating complex and broad topics.

We have the fortunate position of being able to connect with many experts at the forefront of the future of online learning. What better way to see where we’re going than to ask them? 

The history of online learning and Harvard Online are just one small part of our story. To learn more about the future check out the second blog post in this series, Shaping the Future of Online Learning, and our wide array of online courses and how to enroll, check out our Course page.

Related Articles

Shaping the Future of Online Learning
With more than two decades of senior executive leadership at Harvard, Catherine Breen offers insight on the future of online learning. 

Photo of Catherine Breen at a conference table smiling with hands folded in a meeting.


UniRef Brings Harvard Courses on Web Programming to Syrian Refugees
Harvard Online is proud to provide access to education and experiences that help communities thrive. 

photo of people in a meeting space sitting at long tables listening to a lecture


Related Blog Posts

Elevate Your Potential: The Ultimate Course Guide for Young Professionals

Promotion readiness shouldn’t be a distant aspiration but a goal that you can start working toward now.

Top 10 Online Courses for Personal Development

A list of the best online courses for for learners who are ready to take the next step in their journey of self-discovery and personal growth.

Top 10 Harvard Online Courses for Business Professionals

We have compiled a list of our top courses for goal-oriented business professionals who are ready to take the next step in their professional development.