As a 10-year-old reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I had but one wish: that I, too, would soon receive an owl from Hogwarts, a letter of acceptance that could rescue me from my boring life as a Muggle. It wasn’t just Harry’s magical adventures that appealed to me. It was his schoolwork: Learning to turn beetles into buttons with Professor McGonagall and befriending hippogriffs with Hagrid sounded like a definite step up from arithmetic and American history. (I even threw a Hogwarts-themed party in which my friends and I completed fictional assignments while my mom did her best impersonation of Professor Trelawney.)
Now a group of intrepid Harry Potter fans have made my childhood wish come true, creating a website called Hogwarts Is Here, where you can take free, online classes in the same subjects studied by Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
The website works as a sort of cross between a MOOC (massive open online course) and an RPG (a role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons). You start by creating an account and choosing a house. (No sorting hat here, unfortunately.) I went with Ravenclaw, which seemed fitting for an optional intellectual endeavor. I wasn’t alone in that decision: Ravenclaw is the second most popular house (after Gryffindor, of course) and has the most house points (which you gain by completing assignments).
Once you enroll at the virtual Hogwarts, you can join a dorm, buy books from Flourish and Blotts, and even write for The Daily Owl. Though you might be drawn in by these social trappings, the curriculum itself is surprisingly rigorous. As a first year student, you are expected to complete seven courses: Charms, Potions, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Astronomy, Herbology, History of Magic, and Transfiguration. Every course consists of nine lessons, each of which involves a written introduction, some supplemental reading, and a number of assignments.
The exact nature of the assignments varies, but most of them are essays, and the volunteer instructors seem to take grading very seriously. One assignment for Transfiguration asked for 300 words exploring possible loopholes in one of the exceptions to Gamp’s Law—an expansion on a comment Hermione makes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about the five things that cannot be created with magic. My essay, which discussed how you might circumvent the law against creating money by transforming less valuable items into more valuable ones, received a C, thus proving wrong the kids who teased me for being such a Hermione.
I will admit, my essay was closer to 200 words than 300, and there may have been a couple of typos. But I read all the material I could find on Gamp’s Law, which involved poking around in a few of the site’s books without any real guidance from the syllabus, and attempted to craft a reasonable argument that touched on all the required issues. Given my apparent failure, you will likely need a lot of creativity and an encyclopedic knowledge of the wizarding world if you hope to pass your NEWTs.
You’ll also have to be patient: Since the website is just starting out, most of the courses and textbooks aren’t yet complete. But it’s growing with impressive speed; since I signed up a week ago, they’ve increased the number of lessons available for each course, uploaded the textbook A History of Magic, and added the ability to review assignments and appeal grade decisions. I’m not sure what will become of this odd hybrid—“This website is NOT endorsed, supported or associated, directly or indirectly, with Warner Bros,” the site announces on its homepage. But here’s hoping it’s allowed to come into its own before it’s shut down by the Ministry of Magic.