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How Harvard Worked with edX to Quickly Scale an Online Mechanical Ventilation Course for Emergency COVID Response

Written by Henry Kesner on Jun 22, 2022

Related content: Digital Education, Courses, Impact and Outcomes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harvard University’s course on Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19 was one of 12 finalists for the 2021 edX Prize, an annual award for exceptional contributions in online teaching and learning. Submit your nomination for the 2022 edX Prize today.


COVID-19 has not only changed the way we live and work, but also the way the medical system approaches patient care. In times of emergency response to the pandemic, clinicians all over the globe have been shifted from their normal roles to assist critical care teams in tending to patients suffering from the virus. This process has required many clinicians to operate complex equipment unfamiliar to them, most prevalent among them mechanical ventilators.

As chief of the Division of Critical Care in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, the oldest and largest hospital in New England, Dr. Susan Wilcox was one of many medical professionals thrust onto the front lines when COVID first hit the U.S. Also an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Wilcox found her particular research and expertise a critical need for the times. She had co-authored a textbook on how clinicians with specialties in non-emergency settings can better take care of patients on mechanical ventilators. The textbook’s audience was originally niche—but the pandemic changed that, practically overnight.

“When we first saw COVID on the horizon, it occurred to me that our readership could quickly expand to help a lot of people,” Dr. Wilcox explains. “As we began to see a catastrophic number of COVID patients needing mechanical ventilators around the world, my co-authors and I decided to turn our textbook into a PDF and make it freely available online to anyone. It was the right thing to do.”

This decision caught the eye of an angel investor who told Dr. Wilcox they had been looking to support the development of a course on the textbook’s exact topic. With the world suddenly seeing nearly half a million COVID cases and 38,000 deaths in March 2020—including thousands of critically ill patients unable to ventilate on their own and not enough medical staff capable of managing the equipment to care for them—the investor connected Dr. Wilcox to edX and the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC). Working together, they quickly turned the textbook into a free online course enhanced by rich, interactive multimedia content that, when published on the edX platform, could instantly reach overwhelmed medical teams around the globe.

The launch had an immediate impact: Within its first two weeks of release in April 2020, Harvard University’s online course on Mechanical Ventilation for COVID-19 eclipsed 100,000 enrollments; Within its first month, that number exceeded 189,000. As of June 2022, enrollments have reached over 350,000, representing learners from every country in the world. Harvard’s course also went on to become one of the 12 finalists for the 2021 edX Prize, an annual award that celebrates the contributions and innovations of educators in the edX community and amplifies the powerful role that online learning plays in the transformation of education today.

“When you’re responding to this level of urgent global need, no one is doing it for any sort of accolade or anything,” Dr. Wilcox says. “We were all just trying to get this information out to the world in a very expeditious fashion. To be recognized on top of that as an edX Prize finalist was just a very unexpected and humbling honor.”

Bringing Their Textbook to Life

In determining how to approach the course, Dr. Wilcox and her team wanted to be clear that it wouldn’t turn learners into mechanical ventilation experts or replace the need for intensivists and respiratory therapists. “However, we did want to give clinicians the basic principles of mechanical ventilation, so that they could help augment the care being provided by these experts in this time of urgent need,” she says.

“Everything was moving very fast, and it was unclear to me how exactly we were going to actualize what we wanted and needed to do to equip medical professionals with the knowledge they needed,” Dr. Wilcox continues. “So the investor’s idea to put us in contact with edX was brilliant. Getting connected to edX was the crux of the solution and made all the difference. In my opinion, trying to do this on another platform would not have turned out as well.”

The edX and Harvard teams worked closely with Dr. Wilcox to develop the course, taking care to maximize her time, as she was also juggling her critical work with patients. “I essentially didn’t sleep for three weeks once the pandemic took hold,” she says. “But the combined support from edX and Harvard was phenomenal—they were instrumental in creating a plan and timeline and keeping us on track. My co-instructor Thomas Piraino and I determined how to sequence the content together, and then the edX-Harvard team helped us execute from inception to finished product with only a couple of weeks turnaround time.”

Another aspect of the course development process that impressed Dr. Wilcox was the edX team’s visualization approach. They took her purposefully simple drawings from slides she uses to lecture on mechanical ventilation and transformed them into detailed illustrations and animations that became central to the course’s impact.

“It was so amazing to see my sketches come to life with all the work they put into it,” she says. “They also mixed in video and voice-overs of me talking over the visuals. All of that really helped drive home the important concepts we wanted to get across to learners. The edX team went to that next level of involvement and dedication, and I cannot thank them enough.”

In one of the videos in the course, Dr. Wilcox uses this illustration to explain how clinicians can use a “recruitment” maneuver for COVID patients with hypoxemia (oxygen deficiency).

Making an Impact on a Global Scale

In taking the core elements of her textbook and creating a more interactive and engaging way to teach foundational principles of mechanical ventilation online, Dr. Wilcox says edX’s involvement was critical to extending the information’s reach.

“We received feedback from all over the country and around the world, with so many people saying how helpful they found the course to be,” she says. “We heard from clinicians from all different areas working side-by-side with the respiratory specialists so that everyone could get more done. That outcome was one of the biggest benefits of the course.”

Though not ever her goal throughout the process, Dr. Wilcox also found personal reward in doing her part during the pandemic.

“There were so many people doing amazing work, taking care of patients and driving the national conversation around how we should be managing COVID,” she says. “I wasn’t doing primary research or anything driving the science, but to be helping translate some of the scientific advances into practical terms and approaches and bring that to a much larger audience by making the core principles more simplified and accessible—it was a great honor to be a part of that.”

Trusting in the Process

Beyond its clear applications during the pandemic’s most heightened stages, Dr. Wilcox sees how the Harvard course can continue to be a valuable resource.

“COVID has forced us to think even more about how we can best take care of patients’ respiratory failure,” she says. “For example, the world is aging. Thanks to advancements in medical therapies, people are staying alive longer—but that means instances of respiratory failure for an older patient population will continue to increase. If medical teams know how to work with these patients early on in their respiratory challenges, my hope is that our course can help improve their care into the future.”

And for other educators who envision their content resonating with a broader learning community, Dr. Wilcox shares some sage advice.

“Trust in the process,” she says. “Working with edX was the first time I had ever conducted education on this level of massive scale, and they made me feel very comfortable handing over the reins and having faith in their decisions. If you have some form of learning to get across to a large swath of people, working with edX is a great way to do that—they know what they're doing.”


The deadline to submit nominations for the 2022 edX Prize is July 15. Learn more about the prize and the process and submit your nomination today.

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