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Nanocourses at Harvard

Harvard Medical School uses two-session nanocourses to teach advanced scientific topics in a condensed fashion.

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Although this example comes from a highly specialized program at an elite institution, the underlying idea might be useful in other contexts.  What I take away from this is that these folks have worked to perfect a protocol, an approach to delivering a certain kind of learning in an unusual manner.  It's helpful to recognize that this is one of the things we might be designing - that is, transportable formats - as well as seeing the particular lessons in this one - both how it is set up and the need it highlights: short, intense, effective transfers of knowledge.

(from Harvard Medical School)

What is a nanocourse?

Nanocourses are quick mini-courses lasting for two days.  They meet for a minimum of 6 hours over a period of 2 days. The first session is lecture-based and is taught by 2 or more faculty members over 3-4 hours.  The lectures are contiguous and aim to provide an advanced level of knowledge on current research areas, specific experimental approaches and new technologies. This lecture-based session is open to the entire Harvard community. The second session is discussion-based and is intended only for students taking the nanocourse for credit. The format of this second session, which lasts for 3 hours, is flexible. It may include discussion of relevant papers, brainstorming about future research, or whatever is deemed appropriate by the course director to assess student progress.

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Tell us about your work experience:

Former computer/math/physics type turned social scientist. Have written about communities as organizational junkyards and inter-organizational collaboration, the sociology of time, and the sociology of information and notification. Of late, interested in innovation education. I teach in sociology, public policy, and the business school at Mills College in Oakland where I also direct the InnnovationLab@Mills. Outside of work I build things out of wood, metal, and bits.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What existing pedagogical playbooks are out there that could be adapted to purposes beyond where they are used now?


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Photo of Michael Ninh

Do students use nano courses to replace traditional coursework or to supplement it? I would be curious to know what student performance is like for this class model. If this learning model turns out to be effective, how could it be applied to people who need new skills/knowledge to obtain new jobs? 

Photo of Dan Ryan

Most of what you ask is beyond what I know about it. I put it out there not with the idea that these particular courses could have the application you mention but that the concept/format might be useful/adaptable to other purposes.

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