Online Coursework: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My good friend Ian Lamont, who has been critical of taking classes online, recently decided to take an online math course to ease his entry into an MBA program at MIT.

Here’s my take on some of his points:

The convenience was great. We could go at our own pace, and start at any time during the year. Beginning in April, after putting the kids to bed, I would go downstairs to the living room to spend about 2-3 hours on readings and homework, and about every week, the chapter tests. I never had to deal with driving. Homework and tests were completed online. I was able to make very steady progress, with the aim of completing the course by the time my full-time MBA program started in Cambridge in early June. I was able to finish the required chapters in about two months and take the proctored final exam in downtown Boston the day after Memorial Day, just a few days before heading to MIT.

One of the biggest reasons that people consider taking an online course is because it’s the only reasonable way to acquire some knowledge or skill within some outside time and lifestyle constraint.  This only becomes more of a problem as family and work obligations accumulate.  In far too many situations, the choice is to take an online course or do nothing at all.

…the teacher was very responsive to those questions that were asked by email. I sent more than 10 specific queries over the course of the semester, most relating to grading errors with the MyMathLab software we used to complete assignments and take tests, or questions relating to the final. She responded to every one within 12 hours.

That’s the good.  Here’s the bad:

There was no shared sense of community, or any efforts by the school (the state university that offered the online course) to create one, beyond setting up an online message board. Many of the students used this to introduce themselves at the start of class, but by chapter 1 or 2 in the book practically all shared dialogues had stopped using the official message board.

…Grading was easy.

…The lack of an easy mechanism to ask complex questions was very frustrating.

and the ugly:

..In summary, taking this online math class basically boiled down to being taught by a textbook, and getting university credit for it, from one of the top-ranked public universities in the United States.

In a sense, I can agree with what Ian is saying here.  From program to program and even within programs, there are enormous gaps in the experience for a lot of students who are more comfortable in a classroom setting.

Let me give you an example of my experience, which mirrors the experience that Ian had.  Mind you, my other experience with an online class was at another school, not Harvard.

I needed a foreign-language prerequisite and the only way to get it was to either sit in a classroom twice a week during the day or take an online class.  I chose the online class primarily because my travel schedule allowed it.

I hated it.

Why?  Because I NEVER got to actually speak the language with another real person in the class.  The course was a guided tour through a textbook where you filled out exercises with the correct answers and then went to a proctoring center to take the exam.  Any verbal exercises were done via headset into a recording app which was then graded offline by the instructor.  Pffooey.

Let me tell you that I felt distinctly cheated by the whole thing which (as Ian mentioned) made me feel like I was teaching myself a language with the textbook.  I learned the language alright, and I’m able to converse with others, but the bad aftertaste in my mouth was largely the feeling that the online course was arranged to be as (or more) convenient for the instructor versus the student.  Without any video, and with precious little actual face-time or interaction with other students, you really do feel like you’re teaching yourself but paying good money to someone else for the privilege.

To the schools, this probably seems like a no-brainer: buy some software, assign a junior faculty member to serve as an “instructor” and then collect full tuition without needing to provide space or pay salaries for full-time faculty.  This is wrong.

When I was investigating Harvard Extension, one of the most interesting points was the fact that the videos of classes made online were fresh.  Videos were at most 48 hours old and reflected an actual course that had occurred just a short while ago.  An actual instructor was paid to stand in a classroom and deliver a presentation and answer questions, much as they would for a regular class.

In addition, the coursework that you did wasn’t a one-size-fits-all, fill-in-the-blanks-on-a-webpage kind of experience.  If the course required that you write a program, then you wrote that program and sent in the source code.  Ditto for written assignments and problem sets.  I learned LaTeX primarily as a side-effect of needing a good way to complete homework that depended very heavily on arcane mathematical notation which wasn’t well supported in existing tools.  I even participated in “live” class sessions, where a conference bridge was set up during the class for us to ask questions of the instructor!  Using some screen sharing technology for my Ruby on Rails class, I could see the instructors screen as they went through designing a Ruby application.

What I came away with is that the better part of having a good online education experience depends on an instructor having a willingness to communicate with students.  The next variable is how well the program supports or hinders that function.  Some programs undoubtedly de-emphasize the communication aspect in favor of material presentation.  Others (like Harvard) do a better job of minimizing the gap between communicating in person and communicating over some distance over a wider range of mediums.

I you’re looking at an online course or degree program, pay special attention to the class delivery method and the level of interaction you’ll have with your classmates.  If you feel like you’re all alone, you’re not going to have a good experience.  It really pays to contact the instructors ahead of time and find out how good they are at managing and supporting communication in the class.

So the problem here isn’t so much whether online education is inferior to in-class education per seThe real problem is that a lot of schools are doing a half-assed job of making the distance experience every bit as good as the live experience.  Execution is one of the key differentiators here.

Why did I like the HES distance experience?  Because in almost every case, I could be assured that someone from the class was doing their best to answer my questions and be present for me as I worked through the material.  You wont get that everywhere and you’ll likely pay more for less of it at a lot of the newly-minted adult education programs you see advertised by both private and public educational institutes. 

Caveat emptor.

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I Almost Started School Again…

So…

I’ve recently become interested in a new project that requires a discrete familiarity with statistical analysis of large data sets.  The problem is: I have no knowledge of  the theory of statistical analysis.

So naturally that’s a problem. As I’ve mentioned before, a good part of the people who come to Harvard Extension do so because they need specific training in a particular skill or subject.  As luck would have it, the Harvard Summer School has a class on statistics.  It’s even available online.  Perfect.

Only…not perfect.  By the time I realized that I needed the class, the deadline for summer late registrations had passed.  I could probably petition to get in anyway, but I’d be playing catchup and the summer school classes run very, very fast.

On the plus side, it looks like the same instructor teaches it every summer.  That’s good news since I plan on taking it next summer unless I can get the knowledge another way before then.  Even so, I might go ahead and take the class anyway because it counts as a class for the ALM-M in Finance.

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Relaunching the blog…

First, an apology:

The last year has been a bit hectic for me.  After graduating, I changed jobs and relocated closer to NYC.  Between moving and getting settled in at the new job, I let this blog go unattended.  My apologies.

The good news is: I’m Back!

A lot has changed at the Harvard Extension School since I graduated:

  1. The requirements for admission to the ALB degree program have been increased.  Without a doubt, the admission bar is now even higher, never mind to graduate.  This is certainly something that I expected.  While HES serves a non-traditional population, they do want to make sure that it’s people who are at the top of the spectrum in terms of academic potential.  They also want to make sure that the school stays small.  There is a lot of interest in the HES programs now and one administrator mentioned to me that they are trying to keep the quality of the program high and the programs relatively small.
  2. Some field of study programs were eliminated.  I expect to see some further consolidation.  This is probably a result of the changing demographics of the student population and the economic landscape.  My impression from talking to other people is that they are seeing education (when they are already past the traditional college age) in purely economic benefit terms.  This probably translates into more “practical” coursework and less “liberal-arts” type coursework.
  3. The ALM in Management is now the most difficult program to enter at HES.  When it was first created, there was no expectation on the part of the administration that it would be as popular as it is.
  4. Extension students are getting some respect from a notable source.  I find his comments particularly telling:

In any case, the extension students from CS 124 this semester should be very proud of themselves.  I believe my class is one of the more challenging undergraduate Algorithms and Data Structures classes at any university — extension or otherwise.  Many (most?) of these students have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that make taking any class extremely difficult.  They should know that I’m impressed by them, and I hope my class turns out to be a useful experience for them.

I took Michael Mitzenmacher’s course and it was a killer.  My grade in his class was the lowest grade that I earned at HES during my time there: a B-.  Ouch. 

Protip: do not take his class during the summer when it’s done double-speed unless you already know the material.

That said, I got some instruction from one of the best professors at Harvard.  That’s an experience I’m going to cherish for along time.  The level of understanding that I got for the mathematics of computer science is simply something you can’t fathom until that light turns on for you.  It’s an enlightenment that informs my career and my academic pursuits today, several years later.

It’s also worth noting that of all the departments at Harvard that teach classes at HES, the computer Science department has been the most welcoming.  Of all my interactions with professors at Harvard, the CS professors are the most willing to go the extra mile to help a student succeed.  Salil Vadhan taught a relatively tough course to extension students and was more than willing to help me smooth over the gaps in my knowledge.

Protip: take a course in Formal Methods of Computer Science before you tackle any other mainly theoretical CS course.

This is all very good.  I’m happy with the progress that HES has made with integrating itself into the larger Harvard community.  Right now, the trend is towards lifelong learning.  I’m planning on taking another course in statistics soon (for work) and when I do, it’ll probably be at HES.  We’re an important demographic.  We shouldn’t have to settle for inferior programs at high prices.

More to come.

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Harvard Extension is Now 100 Years Old!

If you want a good primer on what HES is all about, give this article a read:

Turning a Chipper 100

It’s a shame that HES doesn’t get more attention.  It serves a very important and worthy purpose in the maze of options and initiatives at Harvard.  Give the article a read and broaden your understanding of the HES mission.

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Distance Education and the Harvard Experience: A Response to Critics

I’ve had a chance to read both Harvard Extension Dean Michael Shinagel’s book The Gates Unbarred as well as Ian Lamont’s review of it.  I agree with a lot of what Ian has to say about the book, but on one point I disagree with Ian in some fundamental ways: the role of distance education at Harvard, particularly in degree programs.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I took the majority of my coursework at Harvard Online.  Out of the 64 credits that I needed to graduate, I took fully 56 of those via the distance education option.  The other 8 hours I took on-campus, sitting in a classroom alongside the other HES students.

My own opinion is mixed on the subject but I have to disagree with Ian on one issue he seems to feel very strongly about: that taking a distance class is a fundamentally inferior experience than the in-class experience.

Ian’s own opinion seems pretty cut and dry:

The idea that email, prerecorded lectures, and asynchronous message board exchanges can completely replace being in a room with your professor and classmates is ridiculous, yet that’s exactly what the Extension School is promoting — particularly for the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT degrees, both of which can be earned with upwards of 90% distance education credit (i.e., as little as a single semester or two seven-week summer sessions on campus).

I’ll note that Harvard is hardly alone in this trend.  As I’ve noted before, other Ivy League schools offer entire engineering degrees that are indistinguishable from those offered on campus.  Columbia’s CVN program is one of them.  That program requires NO presence on campus and offers degrees in some pretty difficult disciplines.  Carnegie Mellon offers a Masters Degree in Software Engineering.  So it’s a given that different schools are experimenting with the appropriate role of distance education in the context of a degree program.  The opportunity is huge.  The ability to reach students worldwide is a significant incentive to get involved in this new learning paradigm.

But what of the actual experience?  What are you missing when you only have a limited sensory and interactive environment compared to a “live” classroom?

First, the one thing you give up is presence.  In the current modes of distance learning, the student is aware of the instructor, but the instructor isn’t aware of the student.

Second, you give up a certain degree of interactivity.  You can’t raise your hand and immediately query the instructor.  You also can’t be called upon by the instructor.

Finally, you give up a certain degree of cooperative education.  You can’t interact with your fellow students in as friction free a manner as you could when they are all right there with you in the classroom.

Those are all important aspects of education and it’s great if you can get them.

But what if you can’t?

Let’s look at some of the barriers to those same three aspects of classroom-driven “live” education.

Presence:

  • Distance : you live in a different city (or a different country) from where the class is being taught.
  • Scheduling : your particular life situation makes attending class at the required times an impossibility.
  • Handicap : you have a particular impediment that makes actually being (or learning) in a classroom difficult or impossible.

Interactivity:

  • Class size: some “live” classes are huge.  Getting the attention of the instructor is basically akin to being very very lucky.
  • Teaching Style: some Professors don’t like to answer questions in class or prefer to defer extended Q&A sessions to “office hours.”
  • Time: with a limited amount of class time, the level of additional discourse on a particular topic can be greatly constrained.

Cooperative Education:

  • Subject matter: some subjects don’t lend themselves well to cooperative education.  Programming is probably one of these.  Math probably isn’t either (distinct from a one-on-one tutoring environment).
  • Competition: the other students might not be particularly motivated to help you learn (especially if they think you are their competition on the grading curve)
  • Attention seekers: some students tend to dominate the class conversation without necessarily adding to the class discourse.

These are all ways in which a “live” class experience can fall short of the ideal when we consider the primary purpose of the course: the absorption and understanding of the subject matter being taught.  The subjective evidence seems to indicate that there is a very wide gap between the ideal classroom experience and the actual classroom experience.  (If you’ve ever had to sit through a lecture by a less-than-dynamic professor in a half-filled classroom in an environment that isn’t comfortable with a gaggle of uninterested (or uninteresting) students, you know what I mean.)

For all of the benefits of “live” classroom presentation, it has been my experience that a good lecturer is a rare find indeed.  Even rarer is a collection of students that is as engaged in the subject matter as a good professor.  Yet if a particular class falls short on both of those aspects, why aren’t we talking about how that comparatively poor experience is a hindrance to learning?

I would argue that replacing a poor “live” class with a good “distance” class would overcome a lot of the problems I just listed.  And that’s just the beginning.

Lets look at another problem of learning that is always at the forefront: access.  Most people equate access with cost, but in reality it’s a much more complex issue.  A single mother might be able to afford the cost of education, but not the cost of day-care for her family.  A father might be able to afford the cost of a class, but can’t take advantage of it because the class times conflict with his work schedule.

A heartless cynic might say that what needs to change is that person’s situation, rather than the mode of delivering the education.

But let’s look at another perspective: that of the handicapped person who is greatly limited in their ability to interact with others in a “live” classroom environment but nonetheless able to complete the coursework and pass the exams.

I would find it hard to believe that someone would consider their achievement a somewhat lesser experience because they weren’t able to participate fully in the same manner as more able-bodied students.  Is the degree of a paraplegic student a different achievement from their peers if they used assistave technology to complete their studies?

That’s why I’m less than convinced by arguments to roll back or slow the progress that distance education has made in bringing educational opportunity to the world.  If you read Shinagel’s book, it’s clear that there are a lot of hurdles that needed to be overcome to find a workable way forward.  A lot of innovative development was required to solve the problems of distance and participation.  I’m convinced that future developments will only narrow the distance between the in-class experience and the distance one. Several months ago, I was able to use a Cisco Telepresence system to interact with some colleagues in California.  To each other, it appeared as if we were siting across the desk from each other.  Given my experience with distance education, I could only imagine the possibilities  of using this technology for a college class.

In the future, it should be possible to meld the best elements of both to solve the problems we all face in getting the best education possible.  I’m convinced it can happen and the history of distance education at Harvard shows that the problems are solvable.  To do it, we’re going to have to reconsider what the important parts of a “Harvard” education really are and how we can preserve the best parts of that experience while looking forward to expanding the reach of that experience.

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I’m Done (Part II)

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First, I’m going to apologize for taking so long to write this up.  Things have been crazy for a while in my life.  For one thing, it’s felt very good to be done with school.  I’ve been catching up on a lot of things that I didn’t have the time to enjoy while I was working towards my degree.

For one thing, I needed to do a lot of cleanup around my house.  I had tons of books and papers to file and it took me quite a bit of time to get everything straightened up.  If you’ve ever had to clean out a garage, that’s what my office was like.

For another thing, I picked up a new hobby: Crossfit.  I regret to say that whatever level of fitness I had before starting my studies, it was distinctly less once I finished.  True to form, I picked a program that is probably the most challenging type of fitness program you can find.

Anyhow, I promised you a recap of the rest of my graduation day.

Afternoon Exercises

One thing that most people aren’t prepared for is the sheer volume of people present at graduation.  Once the morning exercises are over, the task at hand is to find your guests and get over to wherever they are going to actually hand you your degree.  For the ALB candidates, that’s the Loeb Theatre.

Finding my family and guests was a challenge.  Before we separated for the morning exercises, I told them to meet me in front of the CVS right across the street from Johnston Gate.  That’s on the way to the Loeb Theatre and a convenient landmark.

It was a good thing I told them before the morning exercises too because my battery died from all of the pictures I took with my Blackberry to upload to Facebook.

Once we walked over to the theatre, things were a little more relaxed.  A nice selection of sandwiches and drinks were set up for people to enjoy while we set ourselves up for the ceremony.  I was absolutely famished.

Somewhere along the line, they hustled all of our guests into the theatre and we were the only ones left in the hall.  It can be a little strange to be surrounded by a mass of people in dark flowing robes.  The Loeb Theatre lobby isn’t the most spacious venue and I’ll admit to feeling a bit claustrophobic in those surroundings.  I’m sure being packed into Tercentenary Theatre for most of the morning didn’t help.

That’s when we were surprised by a nice gift from the school: a Harvard Extension shield lapel pin.  We lined up in our graduation order and pinned those onto our gowns as we waited to march into the auditorium.

Unless you’ve ever been on stage, it can be hard to imagine the feeling of being the object of attention in a ceremony like this.  As we were walking to our designated seats in a line and the music was playing, I couldn’t help feeling a curious mix of anxiety and pride.  I had made it.  I was finished.  Nothing was going to come between me and that degree.  Yet I feared that something unknowable and unforeseen was stalking me.  Perhaps it was the knowledge that I’d tried twice before to complete a degree, only to have some life obstacle block my way.  I can’t be sure.  What I can tell you is that I became acutely aware of my own fears all along the way from the very beginning that I wouldn’t finish.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.  Lots of us had to modify or otherwise compromise our schedules to stay on track.  My plans had me graduating in 2008 but I had to delay that by one year to ensure I would meet my goal to graduate cum laude and with the coursework I wanted.

The Commencement Speaker

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All of these thoughts were going through my mind when the person seated next to me started to nervously thumb what looked like a set of prepared remarks.  As it so happens, Ryan Slattery, our graduation speaker, was seated directly to my right.

When he was called upon to present those remarks, I felt a sense that maybe I should have made an attempt to convey to the audience and the other graduates what my own journey had meant to me and how the struggle to balance a professional life and an academic endeavor had altered my own perspective of what I could achieve.  I felt like I should have tried to at least offer my own words for consideration.  I felt a quick pang of regret.  All I could do was hope Ryan’s address would capture some of my feelings and that he would deliver it with a tone that would engage the audience.

As it turns out, Ryan was an actor on his way to graduate film school at UCLA, a very selective program.  He probably had more time in front of an audience than any other person in that room.  We couldn’t have been luckier in choosing a speaker.

And so Ryan delivered a graduation speech that was full of feeling and a sense of the sacrifice that drove all of us forward.  Here are some highlights from his speech:

Usually, Commencement speeches focus on these grand journeys ahead – and let there be no doubt this will be the case for everyone here – but I think it is appropriate to speak of the diverse and surely winding roads that have brought us all together today.

Our program is often called ” a second chance at a first-class education.”

Each and every degree conferred today has meaning beyond the print on the paper.  Each represents the journey of its recipient.  It is a symbol of missed anniversaries, baseball games, and dinners with the kids; of long flights and train rides; of rising the the challenge of a second chance; of fulfilling the pride of loved ones now gone.  There is simply not enough room on the degree to write about what it really means, but the stories of sacrifice of each and every degree recipient, most of which will probably go untold, make today more special than anyone can imagine.

As I listened to him speak, I was happy they chose him to give the speech.  His experience was similar to my own.  He felt the same sense that he should make the most of this opportunity and push as far as he could.  He understood that the way forward was often difficult and the right path through unclear.

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In the end, after all of the awards were handed out and we began to line up to walk across the stage and receive the degree, I was struck by a curious coincidence.  When I first traveled to Cambridge, the first person I spoke to about the degree program was Mark Ouchida, one of the advisers.  Now, there just off-stage alongside me, was Mark.  We greeted each other with the sense that he was both the first person I met at Harvard and the last person I would speak to before I finally graduated.  Right then, I knew everything would be fine.

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As my name was called, I walked past my own advisor, Suzanne Spreadbury, who had called me forth.  I made my way across the stage to the Dean, Michael Shinagel, who handed me the red envelope containing that precious piece of paper.  His only words to me:

Big Smile!


And with that, we turned toward the camera, paused for a photo, and I joined the ranks of Harvard Alumni.

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I’m Done! (Part I)

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It’s been a little while since I’ve posted here but I’m hoping that you’ll forgive me.

After four years, countless trips back and forth to Cambridge, endless nights spent staying up late to finish assignments, and a general lack of downtime, I can say that I’m happy to report I received my bachelor’s degree on Jun 4th at the Harvard 2009 Commencement.

So I took a nice long vacation to celebrate.

Although there is so much to tell you all, I’m going to be brief and include just a few photos from the event.

Extension Group

Morning Exercises

I arrived at 51 Brattle Street right on time at 7am.  This was a bit of a challenge since I was traveling with family.  One thing that’s isn’t quite apparent is that the actual morning exercises don’t really start until 10am.  Those three hours are needed to get everyone into their seats and in the right positions.  If your family is coming with you, remind them of that.  People were lining up to get seats in Tercentenary Theatre early that morning.  Once you get into the yard, it’s going to be a long wait for everything to get started.

We had to walk from 51 Brattle Street to a staging location right behind Sever Hall.  They counted us out at 51 Brattle Street and made sure that we were all “present and accounted for” and then had us hang out in the courtyard behind the building while we enjoyed some refreshments.

One nice thing was meeting up with a couple of former classmates of mine from EXPOs E-25.  Out of the 16 or so classmates that I had from that class, only those two were there to graduate.  I can only assume that some of my classmates didn’t complete the ALB program or were still working on the degree.  I can’t imagine anyone getting it done faster.  It felt like I was burning the candle at both ends for the past four years.

Once we received the go-ahead, we made the walk to Sever Hall.   This was pretty fun, since we got to mingle and see all of the graduating members from the other schools.  It’s amazing how many people graduate from Harvard every year and there was a wide variety of academic regalia on display.  Members from the Harvard Business School, the Graduate School of Education, the Divinity School, and the Graduate School of Design were just some of the groups I saw as we moved to Sever Hall.

It seemed like we were lined up behind Sever for an eternity.  Of course, this is just a by product of the massive operation involved in making sure that everyone is in place for the final walk into the ceremony.  A comparison between the arrangement of military forces preparing an invasion and the process of getting everyone in place for Commencement wouldn’t be too far off the mark.  Before we actually got to take our seats, the view was one of a black-robed army.

Finally, we arranged ourselves in a column two-abreast and walked into the Theatre.  Almost from the beginning, we were walking past everyone’s families snapping photos and saying congratulations.  There were a LOT of folks there!  It really was a fun time!

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Reaching our seats was a little comical.  The seats are so close together that anyone with any sense of personal space is bound to feel a bit squeezed.  Adding yards of flowing fabric to our predicament didn’t exactly help matters either.  Getting up or sitting down involved much gathering of gown and profuse apologies for sitting down on someone else’s robe.  We all took it in good humor.

Then, once we were all in our seats, the fun began…

….stay tuned for Part II!

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I’m Supporting Andre Bisasor for HESA President

I’m supporting Andre Bisasor for HESA President.  I’d like to explain my reasoning and some exasperation at some of the other candidate statements.

In my humble opinion, HES students are supposed to be selecting someone for their executive experience. By that, I mean that the job primarily requires those who have the skills to set goals and achieve them. Sometimes that means doing the work yourself. At other times, it means motivating others to do the work.

It isn’t about dreaming up ideas. Lots of people can do that. It isn’t hard to come up with ideas.
It isn’t about having some sort of background. Lots of people come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One thing I think has been steadfastly lacking in past HESA administrations is the level of professionalism and attention to detail. I think we really had something with Carlos. More than any other administration, he reached out to students and committed himself to opening up HESA to a wider audience.

He sent out regular emails about the workings of the administration.
He posted here very frequently.
He took steps to make the results of the meetings a matter of the public record. The HESA website contained links to minutes of (almost) every meeting.

These were good things. A lot of it was dry reading but it as important because people who weren’t on campus or couldn’t make meetings could at least follow along as things happened. We don’t have a group that endeavors to cover our political meetings or write articles in the Crimson about new developments so it’s at least mildly novel that he took steps to do these things without any outside pressure.

But that all stopped when Carlos left. Whatever transparency we had was lost. The HESA website fell into disuse and the postings trailed off.

I believe that a lack of executive experience is the reason that this happened. Without any background in “making things happen” we got a lot of half-hearted efforts from the current administration. Some events were poorly attended because invitations came too late. Other opportunities to increase the profile and influence of HES were missed.

But working quietly in the background was Andre Bisasor. He put together the HESLS and re-launched an entire conference. He turned an entirely defunct organization around. That’s a remarkable feat.

He wasn’t paid for his efforts. He wasn’t directed to do this by the current HESA administration. He saw an opportunity to get something done and then went out and did it.

He didn’t ask to be recognized for a job he hadn’t already completed. That speaks volumes about his character.

I’m afraid that the other candidates are simply missing the point. They either believe that they are owed the position or are trying to imply that their on-the-job accomplishments make them a natural fit for president.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s far too easy to become discouraged as HESA president. It’s an all volunteer ogranization and sometimes, people don’t feel like it’s important for them to work at it. Grandiose plans are great, but if there isn’t someone there to actually translate those ideas into actions, nothing happens. It actually hurts us to have too-ambitious goals.

That’s why I’m so critical of the other candidates and supportive of Andre Bisasor. I’m tired of candidate statements that reflect not a single iota of activity at Harvard. Nothing. Not forming a club. Not attending the HESA meetings. Not even showing up to the debates.

I think that Andre is different. He worked with Carlos and has seen at least one effective administration up close. If he can use that example, we can see great things from HESA in the coming years by building on what has already been accomplished.

We don’t need economic development activities. We don’t need more parties. We need simple, effective leadership that concentrates our efforts on measurable and meaningful activities that benefit the school as a whole as well as individual students. Events like the Negotiation and Leadership conference are exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

In my four years at HES, no other event has made me feel more connected to the school and to the university. I got a chance to meet members of many different schools at Harvard. It was a great networking opportunity and a chance to meet other HES students.

If we can get even one more of those events under our belt as an organization under the HESA banner, we will be doing splendidly.

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Harvard Negotiation and Leadership Conference 2009

I spent this past Saturday at the Harvard Negotiation and Leadership Conference.

If you weren’t one of the over 300 people at the conference, you missed out.

I’m going to post a more detailed review in the next few days, but I was very impressed by the quality of the conference and the discussions among the speakers.

Andre convinced some very notable names to attend the conference and give presentations and it’s clear that the audience enjoyed the opportunity to ask them questions.

What’s even more impressive is that this conference represented the first inter-school arranged conference. Both Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School cooperated with Andre Bisasor at the Harvard Extension School to make this conference a reality.

My opinion is that this event symbolizes how HES participates as a full member of the Harvard academic community. I think we need many more such examples.

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MSCS vs pMBA vs ALMM

When I started this blog, my stated purpose for completing my undergraduate degree was to get a credential that I needed to attend graduate school. Now that I’m essentially done with the ALB program (I walk at June commencement) I’m finding that it’s a little more difficult to choose a program than I initially thought.

One of the problems that I face, and I’m sure that others face is one of resources: time and money. Another concern is the desire for flexibility in how the actual classes are delivered. There are a lot of distance/part-time options out there but they vary in quality very widely.

Initially, I was thinking about Columbia’s CVN program for a Master’s degree in Computer Science. The problem with this is the fact that EACH class costs a little over $4000. The classes are delivered on-line and there is no residency requirement.

Another option is the Part-time MBA from UMass-Amherst. It’s also delivered completely online and a relative bargain. The whole program of 37 credits will only cost a about 26K. That’s a big savings over the cost of about $45K for the MS at Columbia.

Then there is a third option: the ALM-M program at HES. It requires 12 classes, but each class is only about $2K. Not only is that a little less expensive than the pMBA program, but it’s a tad more attractive since it appears there is some evidence that they will be increasing the admissions requirements. This can only benefit the program. It’s a unique idea, since the Harvard Business School already offers a (very prestigious) MBA at a very expensive 46K per year (and you require two years). It appears that it is a bit MBA-like, with some other coursework thrown in to make the program a bit more tailored for someone who isn’t necessarily on track to be a CEO but wants to add to their management/leadership skill-set.

I’m still trying to decide and it isn’t fun. Whatever choice I make, I’m going to incur some opportunity cost.

I need to think long and hard about this.

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