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.


  • 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.

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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6 Responses to Distance Education and the Harvard Experience: A Response to Critics

  1. Ian Lamont says:


    Thanks for taking the time to continue the debate over distance education at Harvard. You bring some interesting examples (particularly live videoconferencing) but my stance remains unchanged: Web-based, asynchronous education is providing a watered-down academic experience that should not be allowed to replace up to 90% of degree credit in various Extension School programs. The Extension School administration is making a mistake by putting convenience ahead of academics. It should scale back its distance credit policies until suitable technological alternatives and pedagogical methods are identified and implemented.

    In addition, I was hoping you or some other reader would address my question of why Harvard’s other schools have failed to allow any online credit for their respective degree programs. Even though hundreds of faculty from other Harvard schools have taken part in online Extension School classes, they have not shared these modes of education with students at the College or Harvard’s professional schools. If sitting in front of a computer screen is an adequate substitute for real, in-class instruction and discussion, then why haven’t they pushed for change elsewhere at Harvard, even on an experimental basis?

    However, you did cite two other well-known schools (Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon) that have distance education-based degrees. The two examples that you provide are both in technical disciplines, not liberal arts coursework which forms the backbone of the Extension School’s ALB degree. Tellingly, neither Columbia nor CMU has incorporated distance education into its other for-credit degrees, despite the fact that the former has operated its distance program for decades and the latter is one of the top engineering/CS schools in the country. As for the Extension School’s own ALM in IT program, it has never been established that having students complete 90% of their coursework online, with only limited options for dialogue with their instructors and fellow students, is an effective replacement for in-class instruction. Both you and I work in technology-oriented occupations, and are fully aware that face time is a crucial element of developing new products and getting IT projects off the ground. If bulletin boards, prerecorded video, and email were an acceptable substitute for live interaction, Silicon Valley and the Rte. 128 technology corridor would have become ghost towns years ago — developers, network engineers and other IT professionals could do most of their work from home.

    Two other issues you bring up — handicaps, and live classes with poor instructors or indifferent students — are red herrings. Dean Shinagel does not address them in his book, and for that matter, I have never seen them raised by Harvard or the Extension School administration as a reason for establishing or expanding Web-based distance education. Instead, the factors that are mentioned in The Gates Unbarred include:

    1) Making classes available to vast number of potential students who don’t live near Boston/Cambridge
    2) A million-dollar production facility and professional staff to run the programs, and
    3) The Harvard name and reputation all over the world.

    I believe that many distance education students are seeking the easiest and most convenient way of getting “Harvard” on their resumes. Many of these students would spend 0% of their time on campus if they could, even though it would mean forgoing interaction with faculty, listening to live debates, and performing the simple act of raising your hand and getting feedback or leading the discussion in a new direction — in other words, the very factors that make Harvard one of the best schools on the planet.

    You bring up Cisco’s TelePresence system, and describe the positive experience you had “meeting” with colleagues on the other side of the country. I agree that this technology could be an answer to the limitations of Web-based distance education, and allow students and faculty to interact in a way that’s similar to a live classroom experience. But, until costs come down dramatically (Cisco’s basic units are $80,000, not including networking costs), such technologies will not be a realistic option at the Extension School, much less in people’s homes. In the meantime, Harvard must acknowledge the shortcomings of Web-based distance education, and end its liberal credit policies governing online coursework.

    Ian Lamont
    ALM ’08

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  3. Yoginand Bissoondial says:

    What specifically can be done in a classroom that cannot be replicated over the internet? Sitting in the chair? That is such an obtuse argument. I don’t believe there is only one way to learn.

  4. E. says:

    >>If sitting in front of a computer screen is an adequate substitute for real, in-class instruction and discussion, then why haven’t they pushed for change elsewhere at Harvard, even on an experimental basis?

    Because, as you point out, distance learning is a substitute for in-class instruction. Harvard’s other colleges cater to students who are able to physically attend lectures, and if they are able to receive in-class instruction, there is no need for a substitute. For those who do need a substitute, HES serves that purpose.

    Also, I note that several in-person graduate courses I have taken incorporate aspects of distance learning, such as requiring postings to on-line bulletin boards, delivering multi-media presentations, and attending mandatory meetings with the professor for in-depth discussion of paper topics. I suggest that the adoption of these pedagogical techniques demonstrates their validity.

    Finally, I should point out that to receive an ALM from HES, only 6 of the 10 courses may be taken exclusively online. Of the four courses taken on campus, at least 2 must be seminar formats. I suggest this is comparable with the practice of graduate programs to require coursework from both small, seminar-type courses and larger, lecture-intensive courses.

    >>I believe that many distance education students are seeking the easiest and most convenient way of getting “Harvard” on their resumes

    Your belief does not make something a fact, unfortunately. Your assumption demonstrates a very classist attitude towards people who are not able to avail themselves of a traditional Harvard education. For some students, on-site college or post-grad education is simply not practical and distance education is their best option. Just as a traditional college or graduate student would attend the very best university available to them, a distance learner wants the very best distance program they can find. Surely it’s not that hard to comprehend the motivations of these distance learners?

    If you are correct and Harvard has been educating students in an inferior manner for the past 100 years via its extension school, it raises serious questions about the ethics of the institution because Harvard still charges a pretty penny for HES courses and assures prospective students that they do receive a Harvard education. If this is all false, is Harvard placing convenience ahead of academics, as you suggest? Or is Harvard in effect peddling degrees to anyone willing to pay? And if Harvard, arguably the finest institution of learning in the United States, has reduced itself to a degree-mill, it seems there are more worrisome issues at hand than the efficacy of distance versus in-class learning.

  5. Ian Lamont says:


    I don’t mind debating some of the points you have brought up, but could you take more care when reading my comments and blog posts on this topic? I never said that Harvard has been “educating students in an inferior manner for the past 100 years,” nor did I “point out” that distance education is a substitute for in-class instruction.

    I also want to say to you and the other readers that my criticism of distance education is not intended to sleight those students who treat their studies seriously and are able to earn a degree. Distance education students have outperformed their Harvard College counterparts in the past, and I don’t think I would be able to match the efforts of the author of ClueHQ, who besides working very hard on his degree requirements, actually made a point of flying to Boston to attend some classes in person and meet with his professors.

    But the fact remains: The dated crop of asynchronous distance education technologies used by the Extension School are an inadequate replacement for in-class instruction and academic discourse. As you noted, online bulletin boards and other mostly asynchronous technologies can certainly augment the in-class experience, but it is wishful thinking to suppose that they can serve as a wholesale replacement for the complex dialogues, spontaneous debates, instantaneous question and answer sessions, and the unencumbered exchange of ideas that form the bedrock of a Harvard education.

    This is true of the College and all of the graduate/professional schools, including the Extension School. Every single one of my in-person classes that I took as part of my ALM/Liberal Arts degree requirements featured interaction between faculty and students. This was even true of the two large lecture classes, in which it was possible (during certain parts of the class sessions) to raise one’s hand to ask a question or respond to something that the professors or another student had said. In the seminars and smaller classes, discussions, debates, and asking questions were a part of the daily classroom environment. Many of the classes required oral presentations, which were followed by Q&As with the instructors and other students. The result of this was not only a rich classroom experience, but also an environment that fostered critical thinking and intellectual exchange. In my opinion, this type of interaction should be considered an integral part of an HES education — along with developing writing skills, reading, listening, taking tests, and all of the other things we know distance education is capable of offering to students right now. Unfortunately, message boards, email, videos, and Elluminate are not able to provide the same live dynamic or interaction that is a part of the live classroom experience at the Extension School.

    If you don’t believe me, or don’t want to believe me, I urge you to see what other more experienced people have to say. For instance, I know students who have tried both modes of learning at the Extension School, and they describe it as not as engaging, not comparable to the in-class experience, and worse. Professor Michael Sandel, who manages to have rich dialogues and debates with hundreds of Harvard College students taking his “Justice” class, and who has also had the class repurposed for the Extension School, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that “I don’t believe that it’s possible fully to replicate the in-person classroom experience using new technology”, such as video and online resources. Even Dean Shinagel, the architect of the Extension School’s massive foray into distance education, noted in his book that there has been a struggle of “how best to deal with the spontaneous ideas and contributions of distance students.”

    If the dean, professors, and students are describing significant drawbacks with the current distance education experience, how can you insist that it is not a problem? Do you think that anything needs to be done in terms of making the platform better or reforming the online credit requirements, or is everything fine the way it is now?


  6. S. says:

    First of all thank you for the great source of information regarding HES. I’m can’t wait to take some of the IT classes HES has to offer.
    I am aware of the criticism that HES gets, but as the IT professional(Oracle PeopleSoft engineer) I know that distance learning is a good as in-class experience, if not better. To be honest I don’t care what people say: I took a lot of training courses from Oracle and most of them where online(I know as much as the engineers who went to live classes). As IT field evolves, requirements change as well: requirement for relevant full time work experience doesn’t change(more is better), but the ability to get the job done in non-traditional circumstances(when teams are located in different countries, there is a 5-8 hour time difference) is valued more and more. I was offered a job at Google because I had that experience.
    Am I saying that distance education is better that traditional one? For me, yes, definitely. I get an education from the best university in the world, my organization pays 75% of my tuition, I keep my job that I love and I keep increasing relevant full time experience.
    Please note that it doesn’t come from a person who is desperate to put Harvard name on his resume…I have been accepted to the top MBA programs, but chose to keep my job instead.

    Richard, I have a small favor to ask you: I would like to get the maximum out this program but as it goes with each school there are good and bad professors. Could you post a list of classes you took with a brief review of each. I would hate to get stuck with a class I don’t enjoy. Thanks

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