I registered for my final semester of classes at Harvard Extension.
I was only going to take one course on Formal Systems and Computation (CSCI E-207), which is a taped version of a regular Harvard course. I changed my mind when I spotted this class:
This course is a thorough introduction to Ruby and Ruby on Rails, focusing especially on the major strength of Rails: rapid prototyping and iterative development. The course culminates in the design and implementation of a web-based software product.
I’ve been toying around with Ruby on Rails for a few months now. It essentially a relatively flexible way to build a dynamic website application. Lots of websites use it and it’s VERY popular. I’m excited about this course because it looks like it will combine some traditional academic rigor about representational data models with a useful, practical skill that can immediately translate into increased productivity and opportunity for entrepreneurship.
This strikes me as a notable strength of the Harvard Extension program orientation compared to the College: a focus on combining practical skill-sets with exposure to academic critical thinking methodology. If a student is only interested in gaining some specific skill or exposure to some specific technology, that’s implicitly provided in the coursework. But if another student is more interested in the more expansive objectives of how this particular technology/method/topic fits into the broader picture, that’s also provided.
Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and a Computer Science professor, writes in Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education:
At Harvard, at least, students are bewildered by how the university proudly denies preprofessional curricular options to students who in great numbers will enter the professions after they graduate.
The tensions between the objectives of students and the ideals of professors are evident everywhere. The Harvard Economics Department won’t teach accounting – it once did but dropped the course even as its faculty and course offerings expanded.
If you want learn accounting at Harvard, you have to take it at the Extension School. It’s interesting that this is the case, but it does demonstrate that if what you want is some amount of practical skill combined with an opportunity to pursue a pure academic endeavor, Harvard isn’t your best choice. You can’t major in Business Administration at Harvard.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that Harvard is a liberal arts school. Their program is tailored to deliver a broad mix of instruction on a variety of topics. The idea is to build a well rounded individual with the tools to think critically about the world they live and work in. I’m a fan of this approach but pure liberal arts instruction doesn’t often match the specific needs of the population most likely to be interested in attending school while managing a career.
In a nutshell, this is one thing I love about Harvard Extension. In a single semester, I’m taking two classes which are both about computer science, but with entirely different objectives.
One course (Formal Methods) is about the theoretical mathematical underpinnings of modern computer science. We’ll never touch a computer in the course; the work is all about doing proofs of computational possibility and complexity. It’s not practical in any sense of the word if you are trying to learn how to program, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to know whether you can even solve a problem or not with a computer.
The other (Ruby on Rails) is about getting some real work done. I have a feeling that this course, combined with some traditional technical ability, would prepare a student to launch their own web firm. I have some ideas about things I’d like to do on a website but without a structured framework to undertake the job of actually learning how to get it done, I’d probably waste a lot of time. This course is almost a sort of boot camp on Rails for me.