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.
…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.