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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.