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It is fair to say that MOOCs have captured the world’s imagination as to what might be possible for education, both now and in the future.

MOOCs have also generated controversy, with some wondering about their implications for residential education and others asserting that their hype exceeds their grasp.I would like in this blog post to address a slightly different question, which is what sort of learning can occur through MOOCs and other online offerings? We know that online learning works for knowledge and skills. But can MOOCs change the way people behave?

That was one of the questions that motivated the launch of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s first-ever HarvardX MOOC. Entitled GSE1x Unlocking the Immunity to Change: A New Approach to Personal Improvement, the course was developed by Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, two of my faculty colleagues from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) who are developmental psychologists and experts in adult development.

In this blog, the first of two, I’ll describe the way in which their course demonstrated that you can indeed change behavior, at scale, through a MOOC. In part two, I’ll talk further about the implications of this success, and why this course demonstrates that the conventional wisdom about the relationship between business and education is incomplete.

The traditionally delivered Immunity to Change course has become a core part of the training for school leaders at HGSE. It’s based on the belief that successful leaders need to be learners, and they also need the tools that will enable them to change habits and practices that are obstacles to their own success and the success of their institutions.

The basic idea behind the course is straightforward. It is widely known that the most significant and lasting improvements (in work performance or personal life) come about not through a focus on behavior change alone, but through a focus on changing beliefs and assumptions. For example, most diets focus on behavior change. People do lose weight, but for most it is only temporarily. Immunity to Change moves beyond this dieting model.

Here’s how. To begin, participants are asked to fill out an Immunity to Change map. The first two steps are to name an improvement goal and identify current behaviors that are preventing them from reaching this goal. Following this, students are asked to think about these behaviors and then express the worries they have about behaving in a different way. By identifying these worries, they are then able to identify a number of “hidden commitments” they may be harboring without fully realizing it. Finally, based on the previous steps, participants describe their related big assumptions—underlying core beliefs which may or may not be true—that have kept them true to their hidden commitments.

Read more here.

James E. Ryan is Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Charles William Eliot Professor of Education.