Is Distance Education a Problem at Harvard?

Ian over at Harvard Extended has posted an editorial criticizing the Harvard Extension School push into distance education.  Specifically, he questions whether a degree program composed primarily of classes taken remotely via the Internet can ever really compare to the learning experience offered by in-person attendance on the campus, particularly the Harvard campus.  He notes that out of about 600 classes, more than 100 online classes are offered at HES, with a clear uptick in the number year-over-year.

There is some evidence that the Extension School shares at least some of his concerns.  Last year, the ALB program was modified to include a requirement for 4 (out of a minimum of 16) courses to be completed that are offered on campus only.

I’d like to rebut that argument and make the case that distance education at Harvard can provide a comparable experience if we carefully consider our definition of what a satisfactory Harvard Experience actually represents.

Ian writes:

…permitting students in some programs to get most of their degree credit sitting in front of a computer terminal, often with few opportunities for direct interaction with faculty and classmates, is a mistake. Two of the Extension School’s most popular degree programs — the undergraduate ALB and the graduate ALM in IT — allow students to complete 88% and 90% of their coursework online, respectively.

His concern seems to center on the premise that there are fewer opportunities for direct interaction with faculty and other classmates, and that this necessarily constitutes a somewhat lesser experience than would otherwise be provided by a program that was composed of entirely on-campus coursework.  I think that this reasoning is flawed.

First, there is no evidence that in-class presence helps students to develop a deeper understanding of course material.  While presence on campus might help a student feel as if their connection to a university is stronger, my own experience has been that being in class is only marginally better than viewing the same lecture over the Internet.  Indeed, I am completing the vast majority of the 64 hours that I need for the ALB from my home in Washington, DC.  As part of my experience at Harvard, I regularly travelled between DC and Boston to take classes and exams on campus and I had the opportunity to sample both modes of learning from the very beginning.  I prefer the online courses.

If my grades are any indication, I’m doing far better in my online coursework than I ever did in my on-campus coursework.

I took a number of courses in which I depended heavily on the TFs (teaching fellows) to answer questions when I had them.  I didn’t get a chance to meet any of the other students from most of those courses.   Surprisingly, that didn’t seem to have any effect on my ability to absorb the material.  With occasional help from the TF’s, I managed to pick up enough material to earn A’s (or A-’s) in nearly all of my classes.

I’ll note that there were a few instances where the TF’s seemed to be either too preoccupied or too difficult to communicate with.  In those situations, I learned that the best option was to simply drop the course and replace it with another.

But I’ll note that in no case was I ever at a disadvantage because I wasn’t able to question a fellow student for help with the material.  I certainly had to be more diligent about making use of the resources I had to grasp the material, but I didn’t seem to suffer grade-wise because I was working alone.

Furthermore, I didn’t see a great deal of class participation in the classes I took on campus.  If there was an upside to taking an on-campus class, it was the ability to buttonhole your TF or professor about some assignment you were waiting to receive back.

And leads me to the the point that I think that Ian’s really trying to make: how much of Harvard do you really get if you’ve only ever seen a few of your professors online and you only know a couple of fellow students in your program, or none?

Of course, the same argument could be made about the Extension School as a whole.  As an ALB candidate, I’m never going to live in the residence halls, arguably one of the best maturation and networking opportunities available to anyone under the age of 22.  Does that make my degree worth less as an educational credential?

I’d argue that for a significant proportion of classes, the interactive component of on campus presence isn’t much help.  I allow that there are many fields in which essentially the entire class is about teamwork and interaction with fellow students.  Management classes and language instruction are two notable examples, but I suppose that there are others.

Far more important (for me at least) is how effective Harvard Extension is at transmitting knowledge through an asynchronous medium like the Internet.  On that score, I think they’ve done a fine job.  With very few exceptions, I’ve felt that my professors and TFs have been very responsive.  In one particular case, I had a TF take my call at 11PM one evening.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet my professors in person after taking their class and felt as if I knew them well after having only ever seen them through a window on my PC.  I recognized one of my TFs from another class walking down the street and introduced myself one random afternoon while visiting Cambridge.

So, at least in my case, I’ve managed to nurture and maintain a connection to Harvard (even going so far as to decide I have a favorite professor) even though my coursework was largely completed online.

What could be wrong with that?

I understand Ian’s concerns: that the Extension School is moving too fast in expanding the reach of distance education and that this will detract from the high quality of instruction (and candidates) that the degree programs are known for.

Criticism, offered in good faith, is a good thing.  It’s important that the quality of the degree programs is maintained, even if that means forgoing some revenue or tempering the growth of the school.

My experience and my intuition tell me that these concerns are premature.  For me, the greater concern is how to increase the feeling of community and connection at the Extension School without compromising the non-traditional orientation.  If the goal is to reach further than the walls of Harvard Yard, then some form of distance education is clearly going to be in the mix.  Pointing to distance learning as the problem is simply not productive.

Thus, the better question to ask is if a program that was composed entirely of online coursework could ever be considered a true Harvard degree.  I submit that it can.

If we examine the subset of classes that are taught to Harvard College students on campus and to Harvard Extension students via distance ed, we see that they perform roughly on par with each other.  Ian acknowledges this himself.  As a somewhat crude example, this seems to indicate that it isn’t really the distance aspect of instruction that is important for learning.  What matters far more is the quality of the professors and the TFs and their own comfort with the technology.

By far, the professors I have had in my distance classes seem keenly aware of this fact.  They understand the limitations of time and place and seek to transcend them with technology.  It is possible to compensate for the sensory deprivation that seems to follow distance education.  I, for one, don’t agree that some sort of virtual reality environment that replicates a lecture hall is needed.  What could be more silly than sitting in a chair at home manipulating an avatar sitting in a chair in a virtual classroom?

In the real world, commercial enterprise has embraced each evolution of technology that eliminates the need to travel in order to communicate or conduct business.  From the telegraph to the telephone and TV, conference calling, video conferencing and the Internet, the value of eliminating the need to schedule a meeting among a widely dispersed group of individuals is clearly recognized by many.

Why should education be any different?

If your goal is to have some sort of experience, then maybe distance learning isn’t right for you.  It will be impossible with current technology to replicate the experience of sitting in a cramped chair huddled with a few others trying to master some arcane subject.  If instead your goal is to develop a deeper understanding of some particular subject or skill without the extraneous aspects of college life, then you might give distance ed a try.

Taking a distance education class at Harvard is no less valuable an experience than sitting through one on-campus.  It’s simply a different experience.  It’s up to the administration to make that a good one.

This entry was posted in blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is Distance Education a Problem at Harvard?

  1. Chris says:

    Well said. Even if the Harvard “experience” is not fully available through its traditional form through HES, there are probably many who attend Harvard College who get far less from it than some who take full advantage of HES and its resources.

  2. Ian Lamont says:


    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my original essay, and allowing me to continue the debate here.

    I think one of the biggest differences in our respective arguments is you are defending online distance education from the point of understanding course materials. I am approaching this issue from the point of what a “Harvard education” means.

    It’s not just about having the campus experience, mastering course materials, or getting better grades than students who attend class in person. I firmly believe that a Harvard education — indeed, a university education — entails spending time in the same room with other human beings, listening to what instructors and classmates have to say, and asking questions. This is the process of dialogue that President Rudenstine referred to in 1996 — the discussions and sharing of knowledge that takes place when people are talking with each other in a direct manner, in person. It’s old school, but it works.

    Electronic transmission of course materials and asynchronous online discussions — emails and threaded discussion boards — are not as effective as synchronous modes of communication that incorporate voice, gestures, and facial expressions. Distance education classes should not form upwards of 90% of class credit for a Harvard degree, which is currently allowed under the graduate ALM in IT and undergraduate ALB degree programs.

    Why do I think the in-class process of dialogue is so important to a Harvard education? One of the most important reasons is it’s more efficient, in that it enables rapid communication of knowledge and ideas. Almost every human being is capable of speaking more than 140 words per minute, whereas very few people are able to type that fast. This creates a significant barrier in an online environment, where conversations take longer to unfold, and many people may not want to bother asking class-related questions. Not only will it require more time inputting keystrokes, there’s also a strong possibility that the questions may never be answered.

    In-class conversations also enable shared, multiperson dialogues. These are difficult to realize with email (who wants to cc the entire class?) and even online discussion boards have problems. A disinterested person in a live classroom setting may not want to participate in a discussion, but at least he or she will have to listen and absorb some of these debates, and is a part of that community, even if only as a silent observer in the discussions. Not so in an online message board, where a disinterested person will simply never log in to see what people are talking about.

    Face-to-face dialogues allow for spur-of-the-moment questions and interruptions. People can raise their hands, or interrupt someone. Sometimes these serendipitous discussions lead to marvelous insights or moments of clarity, and all it takes to start one is the simple act of raising your hand.

    Another important aspect of the in-class experience is the ability to demonstrate and discuss objects or images. This is perhaps more significant to me as a history concentrator, but other scientific and artistic fields are similar — instructors have materials that they want to show students on the overhead projector or on a table, and people can easily point to, examine, and discuss particular details. One of my electives — Archaeology of the Silk Road — was held in Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and more than once artifacts were brought into the room for us to see up close and handle (with gloves). This is an experience that could simply not be duplicated online.

    I’d like to point out that I recognize many of the conveniences and advantages of the Internet. It has enabled our respective blogs, our friendship, and this discussion. But when it comes to education, I do not believe that current Internet technologies can match the real-world, in-class experience. The rest of the University seems to agree: Other than the Extension School, no other educational unit on campus has truly embraced streaming video, message boards, and email as a substitute for the classroom. Note that dozens of professors teaching distance education sections at the Extension School also teach at the College, the GSAS, and other faculties. In a few cases, they’ve been doing so for several years. Surely they’ve had many opportunities to assess the pros and cons of distance education, yet I haven’t seen a single report of a Harvard professor clamoring for these technologies to be expanded to other areas of the University for credit. When we do start hearing such calls for change outside of the Extension School, that will be one indicator that distance education technologies can finally deliver a full process of dialogue, and are ready to become an integrated part of a Harvard education.

    Ian Lamont
    ALM ’08

  3. Jon says:

    I can’t agree with Ian Lamont. Online education is here to stay and as much verbal eloquence is a requirement in a classroom, so will the ability to type 140 words per minute be a necessary skill in a few years, if it isn’t already. How many people could even type 30 years ago, now we all do. Its unavoidable. As far as open communication is concerned, videoconferencing for the masses is already a reality and it would not be too hard to apply this to a classroom situation. IE Business School, one of Europe leading business schools, has already incorporated this into their online MBA. Also, the fact the Extension School has embraced distance education shows that they don’t have a problem with this methodology. Neither does Columbia University’s Graduate School of Engineering, by the way. A final point is that universities essentially built the internet as means of facilitating knowledge sharing and collaboration. Surely distance education is a logical extension of that?

  4. Justin says:


    I have read quite a few of your blogs about HES and I am very interested in trying it out. My only question is about the order in which one takes their courses. Can you do all your on-line courses first and then finish with the on campus courses? I am in the Army and would be able to do online courses, but I wouldn’t be able to spend a semester or a year in New England until after I’m out. Is this possible, or should I wait?

    If I may ask one more question, if I were to apply to the ALB program in government, does it matter what my undergraduate degree is in?

    Thank you so much for all the valuable information,


  5. richard says:

    According to HES, you don’t need to do the on-campus courses at any particular time.

    But you DO need to apply and be accepted to the ALB/ALM program within your first 5 courses. If you apply afterward, you risk losing the credit from the earlier courses.

    It IS best to get familiar with the campus even if you can only visit a few times. Consider taking a trip to Boston during your next leave and meeting the advisers.

    Also note that if you already have a Bachelor’s degree, you cannot apply for a second bachelor’s from Harvard. You must go for an ALM (Masters).

    Quite a few current and ex-military members are taking courses at HES. You’ll be in good company.

  6. Basar says:

    Good essay, I never considered HES because I thought I would be missing the Harvard experience but this was very good to read. Thank you.

Leave a Reply