Sunday, September 07, 2008

Final thoughts about Harvard Extension

(New: Launched @HarvardExtended twitter feed, April 2010. Updated answers to professional ALM and résumé sections after degree requirements changed, summer 2010. Launched Ipso Facto on a Harvard blogging platform in September 2011. Posted Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines are bogus, September 2013.  Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement, December 2014).

After writing more than 400 entries, I've decided to bring the Harvard Extended blog to a close. This is the final post. It's a long one, filled with observations, praise, and criticism of the Harvard Extension School and its degree programs. There are also four "top ten" lists of popular, controversial, and interesting posts that I've written up over the years, grouped into topic areas (my thesis experience, views of the Extension School, research interests, and miscellaneous). After today, I won't be adding any new material to the blog, other than to reply to comments. I'd like to thank long-time readers for their curiosity, participation, and support over the years -- if you're interested in following me elsewhere online, or staying connected with the Harvard Extension School community, I have some links for you further down.

If you're a new reader and you've reached this page, it's probably because you searched online for information about the Harvard Extension School. Or, maybe someone told you about the obscure blog run by a graduate student there, and you wanted to read some first-hand insights into the school and its programs.

You've come to the right place. I was an Extension School student from 2003 to 2008, and, until recently, operated one of the few non-official sources of information about the Extension School -- the Harvard Extended blog, which you're looking at right now.

Harvard ExtendedOver the years, many tens hundreds of thousands of people have visited Harvard Extended. I've received scores of emails from people all over the world, plus many blog comments, asking about the Extension School. I'd first like to get some of these questions out of the way, and then I'll talk about my own experience before highlighting the "top ten" posts:

Questions about the Harvard Extension School


Is the ALM/Master of Liberal Arts program challenging? Does it represent a quality degree? (Updated) For those students who take all or most of their classes in person on the Harvard campus and complete the degree requirements, the ALM/liberal arts degrees absolutely represent quality (I don't feel the same way about online classes, however. Scroll down to see why). Students who register for on-campus coursework study under Harvard professors and recognized experts in their fields, and truly engage with them in the classroom. Harvard faculty demand a lot from students, and often use the same reading materials and assignments for their Extension School and GSAS sections.

The course offerings in a few liberal arts fields are superb. Harvard has a large number of extremely talented faculty who are used to working with very bright colleagues and students, and the university has world-class libraries and other facilities. The rich Extension School course catalog reflects these factors. It is a wonderful feeling to browse through the course offerings before the semester starts, seeing what's available and who's teaching certain sections. Where else would you be able to study genetics with a Harvard Medical School professor; a class titled "American Protest Literature from Tom Paine to Tupac" that is taught by two Harvard faculty members with expertise in literature, history, and African-American studies; or classes on the history of Christianity, led by an expert from the Harvard Divinity School? Besides enrolling at the Extension School, the only way to have these types of educational experiences would be to attend Harvard College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Harvard Medical School, or the Harvard Divinity School.

Quality is also manifested in the tough requirements for admission to the ALM/Liberal Arts program. Students have to prove they can handle the coursework and research requirements before they can matriculate. However, the element that really sets the ALM/Liberal Arts program apart is the thesis. It is a major research and writing project that is guided by a Harvard faculty member, and prepares students for advanced research elsewhere. It takes years to complete, and is probably the most difficult research project that most students will ever undertake, with the exception of those who go on to write a doctoral dissertation or book. Just a tiny percentage of the graduate students who come to the Extension School ever complete the ALM thesis. For all degree programs, including the undergraduate ALB and professional master's programs which don't require a thesis, the overall graduation rate relative to the number of people who register for courses is 3% (Source: Dean Michael Shinagel, 2009 address to degree recipients).

The quality and rigor of the ALM/Liberal Arts program attracts high achievers. In my graduating class, there were successful professionals as well as students who had completed their undergraduate and earlier graduate degrees at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who are unprepared for serious study won't get very far. Some prospective degree candidates assume that the experience will be akin to a typical continuing education program. They quickly learn otherwise. While anyone can take a class at the Extension School, students who want to study for a degree have to prove they can walk the walk before they are admitted. Harvard instructors have extremely high expectations of HES degree candidates, and the workload can be absolutely brutal. Classes, homework, papers, exam preparation and thesis research will dominate students' evenings and weekends for years (four is typical).

The washout rate is high. People who sign up for classes and expect to float through the ALM program won't make it past the admissions requirements. Matriculated students who can't keep up with the academic demands will eventually be forced out by poor grades (a B- or higher is required for each course and students must have a 3.0 GPA to graduate) or their inability to complete the thesis. Nine out of ten people who enroll in Extension School classes will never receive an ALM or ALB degree, and even among matriculated students who have been admitted to one of the ALM/liberal arts programs, half won't make it to Commencement.

What about the ALM degrees in information technology and management? (Updated) I can't answer that question -- I never took any IT or management classes at the Extension school.

But I can talk about other aspects of the programs. Despite being called "master of liberal arts" degrees, they are actually professional degrees. And, unlike the Liberal Arts ALM degree, the professional ALMs no longer have any Harvard instructor requirements.

This is a shocking development. The Extension School has portrayed the end of the Harvard instructor requirement as a positive move, saying that it enables more flexibility in course selection. Unfortunately, it also takes away one of the primary reasons for attending the Extension School -- being able to study under real Harvard faculty. 

A little history is necessary to explain why the Extension School administration decided to jettison one of its core competencies for its professional degree programs. When the professional degrees were grown from the much smaller professional certificate programs, the Extension School attempted to duplicate the "Harvard Instructor" requirement that governs the liberal arts-focused ALB and ALM degrees. In fact, the printed 2002-2003 Extension School catalogue actually used the term "Harvard Instructor" for both liberal arts and professional degree requirements.

The professional degree programs were a hit. However, the school had difficulty attracting Harvard faculty to teach the professional classes. Sometimes it was because Harvard's other schools didn't have faculty who taught those subjects -- for instance, there is no journalism or media studies department from which the Extension School could recruit instructors for its graduate journalism degree. In other cases, Harvard professors could not be enticed to teach at the Extension School. In his book The Gates Unbarred, Dean Michael Shinagel admitted this was a problem.

This situation caused the Extension School to loosen the criteria to include "Harvard-Affiliated Instructors", including working professionals and non-faculty researchers from Harvard's huge staff. The school also greatly ramped up its reliance upon pre-recorded distance education classes featuring Harvard faculty, which by their very nature limit direct interaction between faculty and students. This, in turn, greatly expanded the potential customer base outside eastern Massachusetts, increasing demand for more online course offerings.

As for the Extension School turning to affiliates to teach its professional classes, many of them bring huge amounts of experience and talent to their respective programs. However, they are not Harvard faculty members responsible for driving research and academic dialogues at the University. In addition, in many cases the affiliates' experience is specific to Harvard's own operations, which may not apply to the wider world.

According to a letter sent to me by an officer at the Extension School in July 2010, the professional programs' affiliate requirement is being replaced by "advisory board oversight," which the Extension School officer suggests will provide "better quality control". The letter further suggests that the change will allow the Extension School to recruit more talented faculty from other area schools as well as working professionals from outside Harvard.

While recruiting professors from Boston University, Bentley, Boston College and UMass will improve the quality of the instruction in these programs, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University's existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren't "real" degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard's top-notch faculty.

President Lowell, who established the Extension School more than 100 years ago, would have been disappointed. From the archives of The Crimson:
"President Lowell, in speaking of the relations of the University to the community, laid special stress on the importance of confining university extension to fields in which the existing resources of the university could be placed at the service of the community. It was much better, he said, to have substantial instruction of a high grade given by a few of the most eminent and stimulating teachers than to have superficial or merely entertaining courses of a popular nature."
There are a few additional things I would like to note about the ALM in Management program. Completing the ALMM degree requirements will not result in a Harvard MBA, which can only granted by the Harvard Business School. The Business School is a completely different campus entity that has no direct connection with the Extension School. The pedagogy at the two schools are different -- for instance, the Business School stresses the case method and team-building exercises based on class cohorts, and does not incorporate online instruction. For these and other reasons, the Business School's MBA program and the Extension School's ALMM program are not comparable. Further, it is impossible to study for a Harvard executive MBA or a Harvard online MBA -- neither school offers such a degree. (For insights into the student experience at the Harvard Business School, I recommend Philip Delves Broughton's Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School).

Nevertheless, the ALM/Management program is extremely popular. It has grown to hundreds of students since it was introduced in 2007. The Extension School recently decided to tighten up the ALMM requirements, by demanding a 3.33 GPA for admissions and requiring six out of twelve classes to be taken on campus. I believe the new rules are appropriate -- the program really was getting too large, and attracted some people who seemed to value online convenience over academics.

The Extension School's ALB program for undergraduates -- is it worth it? I received my undergraduate degree from Boston University, so it's hard for me to judge the ALB, which is a non-residential program tailored to the needs of working adults. However, many of my Extension School classes had undergraduate and graduate sections, so I can attest to the quality of in-class instruction (but not distance education classes, many of which have little or no interaction between faculty and Extension School students). I would also recommend some of the following posts (be sure to read the comments):
Do Extension School graduates go on to complete advanced degrees at Harvard's other professional schools? (Updated) Yes. There are a small number of ALB and ALM recipients who are admitted to masters and PhD programs at Harvard's other professional schools, including the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Law School, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For instance, in 1996 10 HES grads received degrees from other Harvard schools, including a PhD in English and American Literature and Language from GSAS.

The Extension School no longer publishes the names and degrees of alumni who receive additional Harvard degrees, but the trend has continued into the 21st century, according to Post Harvard (the alumni website, which includes a directory of all Harvard graduates). I did a quick search for a single year's HES graduates in the 2000s, and for that year found about a half-dozen alumni who had received masters degrees from other Harvard schools, as well as one PhD.

Not only does this indicate that some Extension School graduates are being accepted to some of the world's most selective graduate programs, it also proves that the Extension School is giving its students the skills that are required for advanced research and study elsewhere.

However, note that an Extension School degree is *not* a guarantee of admission to another Harvard school. Admission to most masters and PhD programs depends on many factors, including the number of applicants, the specialties/needs of the academic program, applicants' research and work backgrounds, GPAs, adcoms standardized test scores, admissions essays, recommendations, etc.

Will an Extension School degree look good on my résumé? Will it help me get a good job?

I proudly list my Extension School degree on my C.V., and know that many others do, too. But if adding "Harvard" to your résumé is the sole purpose for attending, as opposed to learning, then you are going to the Extension School for the wrong reason and will probably end up wasting a lot of time.

The number one reason for attending the Harvard Extension School is to be exposed to some of the best teachers and researchers in the world and study topics that truly interest you (perhaps as a precursor to further graduate studies elsewhere). Some who manage to get through the degree requirements look back at their studies as a transformative learning experience. Getting a degree from Harvard is the icing on the cake.
 
That said, it must be acknowledged that an Extension School degree will not hold the same cachet as a Harvard College AB or an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Students at those schools are heavily recruited by multinational corporations, technology powerhouses, and well-known management consulting firms and boutique service providers. The Extension School programs are not as well known, and some employers may be skeptical of any degree that does not represent full-time study (this is an existing issue for some EMBA and part-time MBA programs).

I personally think the Extension School's ALM/Liberal Arts and ALB degrees will look good on résumés -- both are quality academic programs and represent serious study and research at one of the top educational institutions on the planet. However, I can't tell you whether it will lead to a good job. That depends on a host of factors, including work experience, work-related skills, job interviews, and the attitudes/requirements of employers. I've hired people before, and the number one requirement is relevant work experience, not where they attended college or graduate school.

I also feel that the expectations of employers regarding the Extension School's professional degrees (management, information technology, journalism, etc.) are going to become less aligned with what the Extension School delivers, owing to the administration's move in 2010 to end the last vestiges of the Harvard instructor requirement. If I were an employer, I would expect that someone putting "Harvard" on his or her résumé would have been exposed to the research and world-class faculty that the Harvard brand represents. Therefore, my advice to students interested in those programs would be to make every effort to take Harvard faculty-taught classes that match your interests (at least while they are still offered) and make an effort to attend symposia, special lectures, and other campus activities that allow Harvard students to get direct exposure to the intellectual and academic life of the University. 

Surely the Extension School has other drawbacks. What are they? (Updated) It's true. Besides some of the issues described above, I have found several notable shortcomings with the Extension School's degree programs.

The biggest problem is the University's resistance to accepting the Harvard Extension School and Extension School students as equals. Yes, students get ID cards and Harvard email addresses. They can use libraries and other facilities on campus. But they are treated as inferiors in several other important areas.

For instance, ALB and ALM candidates who have completed their studies aren't granted degrees in history, biology, or other concentrations. Instead, they receive degrees in "Extension Studies." Dean Michael Shinagel has tried to fight this, but has been opposed by some FAS professors and members of the Harvard College community.

Another example of the Extension School's unequal status: It is the only school at Harvard whose graduate students are not allowed to cross-register. A student at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine could conceivably enroll in a class at the Kennedy School of Government, but a government concentrator in the Extension School's ALM program could not. It's unwarranted, unfair, and insulting. Elitism is one reason for this state of affairs, but a misunderstanding of the Extension School and its bifurcated student body is also partially responsible (see my comments regarding the name issue, below).

I have some specific complaints about the ALM/Liberal Arts program, starting with the limited opportunities for specialization. I was able to take lots of courses in my field (Chinese history) and locate a thesis director in the FAS Department of Government who had very specific insights and expertise relating to my research questions and methodology. Other fields are poorly represented in the Extension School course offerings and among Harvard faculty. For instance, I wouldn't have been able to take many classes related to African history, and I've heard of several ALM students who have had difficulty finding a thesis director who has expertise or an interest in the topic they want to research.

Widener LibraryAnother program-specific drawback was the lack of departmental affiliation. Outside of the classroom, academic support for matriculated graduate students at the Extension School consists of writing help, thesis research study groups, limited academic advising and guidance for the thesis proposal. It's also possible to serve as teaching and research assistants for instructors and FAS professors. Other than that, students are on their own. They can use Harvard's library facilities and attend open seminars elsewhere on campus, but the Extension School does not have full English, biology, or history departments that bring concentrators together on a regular basis or organizes guest speakers, special research projects, or other activities. I am not blaming the Extension School for this state of affairs -- I realize that it has limited resources and can't support full departments with dedicated faculty and staff. Still, it's disappointing to graduate students who are very serious about their studies and want to get the most out of their Harvard experience.

This brings up a related issue: The limited Extension School student community. There are a few clubs, and the Harvard Extension School Student Association (HESA) tries hard to organize social and academic activities, but the number of people who get involved is small relative to the total number of matriculated students. It's not surprising, considering most students live far from campus, have full-time jobs, and often juggle family responsibilities as well.

Online education is a huge growth area for the Extension School, but the technologies used today are not a suitable replacement for in-class instruction and discussion. Unlike traditional face-to-face classes at the Extension School, contact with Harvard faculty in the online classes is limited (Example: "Last term was my first semester at HES and I was surprised at the lack of assignment and test feedback that I received in the courses"). Even though many distance education students work extremely hard on assignments and tests, watching videos on the Extension School website and participating in limited online discussions does not represent a "Harvard-caliber" academic experience, as the Extension School claims. I strongly disagree with the Extension School's liberal online credit policies, which allow students in the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT programs to complete upwards of 90% of their coursework online, without ever sitting in the same room with their classmates or professors. Tellingly, neither Harvard College nor Harvard's professional schools offer online classes to their own students for degree credit.

You can see more of my thoughts about online education at the Extension School here, or read about the online math class I took for credit at the University of California at Berkeley Extension School in 2010. Bottom line: The convenience was addictive, but there was no sense of community or classroom discussion. I was basically "taught" by a textbook (the online element included some light reading, homework, and tests), and received university credit for it. To equate this form of online learning with a traditional, on-campus seminar or lecture is a major stretch.

Lastly, I must address issues relating to the Harvard Extension School's name. When President Lowell established the school nearly 100 years ago, "Extension School" made sense: It was a small program intended to give local residents a taste of the Harvard experience, and for a tiny number of people (for decades, just a couple of students per year), it offered a chance of earning an associate of arts degree. But the school has since outgrown its original mission, as I noted in June:
While the casual population remains (see "The Extension School's 88% dilemma") there is now a significant contingent of undergraduate and graduate students attempting to complete the requirements for the ALB and ALM (graduate) degrees. Forget the outdated student profiles promoted in this 1951 Crimson article -- nowadays, the ALB/ALM student body includes many high achievers and people from all over the world interested in taking advantage of the school's stellar academic offerings. Extension School undergraduates sometimes match or outperform their College counterparts, and among my own graduating class for the ALM/liberal arts degree were a Harvard Divinity School graduate, a Harvard Medical School instructor, and students who had already earned JDs from two of the top law schools in the country before coming to the Extension School.
The problem with the Extension School name -- and the even worse replacement that the administration is promoting, "The Harvard School of Continuing Studies" -- is they reflect the temporary experiences of the majority, as opposed to the dedicated, long-term academic commitments of the minority. "Continuing education" and "continuing studies" suggest casual, open programs of study. That matches the Extension School's original mission, and meets the needs of the many thousands of students who take a class or two because they're curious or want to sample the Harvard educational experience. However, it does not reflect what I and others in the ALM/Liberal Arts program had to go through, in terms of completing graduate coursework and a major research and writing project, or the many years of dedicated studies that are required to receive a degree or certificate through the Extension School.

This is not an attempt to slight continuing education or open enrollment at the Extension School. Continuing education helps individuals and benefits society. I've taken classes for personal enrichment and/or career advancement, such as the Mandarin courses I took at the Taipei Language Institute and my very first class through the Department of Continuing Education -- an introductory short story writing class that I took through the Summer School in 2002. But these experiences simply do not compare to my ALM journey.

It's quite clear that the Extension School's degree programs have outgrown Lowell's original mission and the Extension School name. Harvard could tolerate casual class takers and an associates degree program that graduated a handful of people every year, but it never anticipated the school would become a significant campus presence in its own right. The ALM program, which was launched in 1980, now has more graduates every year than the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. This is hardly what President Lowell envisioned when he established the Extension School. I also doubt most other people in the University community are even aware of what's going on at the Extension School -- at Commencement, I remember our gigantic procession passing the Kennedy School graduates outside of the Yard before the ceremonies started, and overhearing one remarking to her classmate, "the Extension School has degrees?"

Getting back to the name issue: I do not have any specific suggestions for a new school name, and frankly, I don't think it's possible to come up with a suitable name that reflects the school's greatly expanded mission and two disparate populations (casual class takers and serious degree candidates). But this leads me to think that it's not the name that is the root issue. Rather, it's the under-the-radar departure from the school's original mission and the resulting bifurcated student population.

As one might expect, these are sensitive topics among the Extension School student body. I am proud to list my ALM degree on my résumé, but I've found that many Extension School students and alumni play down their Extension School affiliations. The ALB and liberal arts ALM programs require a tremendous amount of work to complete and are quality degrees, yet many alumni would rather state they graduated from "Harvard University" (Harvard has sent mixed messages about this -- the 2008 Harvard Extension School C.V. guidelinesused to allow "Harvard University, Master of Liberal Arts, concentration in history", but the official Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines now require "Extension" be used in the name of the school or the name of the degree).

There is also a high-profile minority of students and alumni who misrepresent themselves as being affiliated with Harvard College, the Harvard Business School, the GSAS, and other professional schools at Harvard. When their lies are inevitably exposed, they not only embarrass the people making the false claims, it also hurts the reputation of the Extension School. These incidents are sometimes reported in the press, further damaging the reputation of the school and its students.

However, these issues should not detract from the quality of the course offerings, the top-notch instruction, and incredible learning experiences available through various Extension School programs. I know three people who have received Extension School degrees and have decided to start again in another HES degree or certificate program. If I had the time and the inclination, I would probably do the same, despite the problems listed above.

My Extension School experience


Like many students, I was introduced to the Harvard Extension School through work at Harvard University. Staff are allowed to enroll in classes at Harvard's professional schools at a greatly reduced cost through the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP). Many of my colleagues at the Alumni Affairs and Development Office pursued degrees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, or took classes casually or for credit at the Extension School and Summer School. I took a Summer School course in 2002 on a casual basis, liked it a lot, and decided to take advantage of Harvard's TAP benefit. I had no interest in the programs at the Ed School, but was impressed by the Extension School catalog, and intrigued by the possibility of earning a masters degree there. I decided to register.
Harvard Yard
It took me five years to complete the ALM requirements. My first graduate-level class, History E-1830 (The Emergence of Modern China) started in January 2003, and my final elective, Humanities E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext) ended in January 2008. I graduated in June of 2008. I wasn't taking classes or working on my thesis for five whole years -- I took off one semester in the fall of 2004 when our second child was born, and there were several months-long breaks in 2006 and 2007 after my thesis proposal and final draft of the thesis were approved. With the exception of one archaeology class, I took all of my classes in the evening, and spent thousands of additional hours at night or on weekends studying, writing papers, and carrying out a seemingly endless set of database queries for my thesis research. I completed all of my courses on campus (as opposed to online) so I had to deal with commutes and parking as well. During the five-year period, I practically gave up reading for pleasure. There just wasn't enough time.

I also had work-related pressures to deal with, especially after I left Harvard in early 2005 and returned to the world of technology journalism. The pay was better, but the hours were longer and my office was far from campus. In addition, I no longer had the TAP benefit, so tuition, books, and other costs rose from a few hundred dollars per class to nearly $2,000 per class, on average. It was expensive, but it was absolutely worth it.

Harvard content analysisI was a history concentrator. With the exception of two American history classes, most of my coursework related to ancient and modern Chinese history. I studied under Philip Kuhn, who has researched and taught Chinese history at Harvard for many decades. My thesis was completed under the guidance of Professor Alastair Iain Johnston, the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs. The title: "Making a Case for Quantitative Research in the Study of Modern Chinese History: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993." Unlike most history theses that rely upon traditional qualitative methods, mine was quantitative in nature. I designed and carried out an extensive computer content analysis (also known as computer-assisted text analysis) to test a disputed issue relating to Post-Mao foreign policy using Xinhua, China's official news agency. You can read about my thesis here, and you can also read some of the other research papers I wrote when I was a student.

State of Play SingaporeBesides studying Chinese history, I also used my time at the Extension School to explore two additional academic interests: Virtual worlds and the Chinese Internet. There were many opportunities to branch out in these areas. I wrote an op-ed piece for the South China Morning Post about how the Internet and consumer technologies were eroding the power of China's government. I was a guest author on Terra Nova, an academic blog focused on virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games, and was invited to take part in State of Play V, an international conference devoted to these emerging technologies. In my last year at the Extension School, I joined the Harvard Interactive Media Group, and for my final research paper for the survey class wrote an extensive analysis of the future of computer-generated 3D environments and the World Wide Web.

Best of the Harvard Extended blog


I launched Harvard Extended in mid-2005 to keep myself motivated as I started the most difficult stage of the ALM degree: The thesis. By reading the posts listed under "My ALM Thesis Experience: Top Ten Posts," you'll get an idea of the intellectual and practical challenges involved. Only a tiny percentage of the people who take graduate-level coursework at the Extension School ever complete the ALM degree requirements, thanks in large part to the thesis.

You'll also find many other posts about the Extension School, classes, and student life. I've come to the conclusion that the Harvard Extension School is one of the best educational deals in the country. I also believe the Harvard Extension School ALM program that I enrolled in was more academically challenging than many full-time graduate programs at Harvard and elsewhere. Nevertheless, I did not always blog about the good stuff and the high points. A range of opinions are covered in "Extension School Commentary: Top Ten Posts" section links further down the page.

I frequently used Harvard Extended as a platform for exploring other scholarly and professional interests, including virtual worlds, Chinese media, and the Internet. See "Research and Professional Interests: Top Ten Posts" for more information. Miscellany has a top ten list, too.

Harvard Extended has 414 entries, totaling well over 100,000 words, but the four lists below include what I consider to the most informative and interesting posts, essays, and asides. If you want more, you can read all 400+ posts by cycling through the monthly index on the right side of the Harvard Extended home page, starting with May 2005.

My ALM Thesis Experience: Top Ten Posts

  1. A.B.T.
  2. Thesis blues
  3. Thesis proposal: Start, write, throw away, rewrite
  4. A tale of two theses
  5. ALM Program: Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research
  6. Precis for Porter's Reporting the News from China
  7. Thesis update: Almost finished
  8. Thesis update: Done!
  9. Harvard Extension School Commencement
  10. Thesis update: Revising proposal, going granular with Yoshikoder

Extension School Commentary: Top Ten Posts

  1. The Extension School's 88% dilemma
  2. Crimson: Some virtual Extension School students outperform Harvard College classmates
  3. Harvard Extension School graduates and advanced Harvard degrees
  4. Harvard Extended Interview Series: Cynthia Iris, ALM government concentrator
  5. A painful case
  6. Harvard Extended interviews the creator of the Extension Student online community
  7. A note from a Harvard Extended reader
  8. Priorities: An ALM Management student takes a break
  9. Distance education at Harvard: I'm not convinced
  10. Legacy admissions and the "Z List" at Harvard College (Read the comments, too)

Research and Professional Interests: Top Ten Posts

  1. My new media manifesto: "Meeting the Second Wave"
  2. Thoughts on research, and saved by Scribd
  3. Another reason China should fear the 'Net: A million people with camera phones
  4. Five reasons why Chinese authorities won't be able to regulate the 'Net
  5. 1907 and 2007: The late Qing press vs. the current Chinese Internet
  6. Internet vigilantes in China
  7. Homer Simpson's brain, or why Xinhua continues to have a credibility problem
  8. Bible Study: Comparing Gutenberg's invention with the rise of the World Wide Web
  9. Serious about Second Life
  10. Interview: Harvard's Rebecca Nesson discusses teaching in Second Life

Miscellaneous: Top Ten Posts

  1. A Thai coup - echoes of 1992?
  2. The British Empire in Colour
  3. Your ridiculous clamour for "human rights" is nothing but a shrill cry!
  4. My parents meet the father of the 2008 Olympic mascots, and other Beijing impressions
  5. Tunes for writing or studying
  6. The Chinese Diaspora in Southern Africa
  7. What's the value of a University of Phoenix degree?
  8. Chinese tattoos can be really, really dumb
  9. UMass Boston and bias in the Boston Globe, continued
  10. Quick Taipei
The end of my Extension School studies does not mean the beginning of advanced studies somewhere else. Many ALM graduates leverage their research experience into graduate and doctoral programs at Harvard and elsewhere, but I am not interested in risking the interests of my family and my media career on an expensive PhD program in a crowded social sciences discipline. I have already spent enough nights and weekends over the past five years taking classes, conducting research, and writing. Now it's time for me to spend more time with my wife and kids. Additionally, the end of my last class in early 2008 coincided with the start of a new job as managing editor of The Industry Standard. This position is extremely demanding, but it's also quite exciting, and allows me to indulge my curiosity in a number of areas, including several that overlap with my research interests listed above. (In 2010, I left journalism and returned to graduate school full-time as an MIT Sloan Fellow.)
My own blogging will shift over to I, Lamont, and you can also keep up with my day-to-day experiences on Twitter, either from the feed on the right side of this page, or by visiting my personal Twitter page. I have also created a special @HarvardExtended twitter account, and update it with news and views that have connections with the Extension School or education.

Harvard Extension School CommencementIt's been a good three-year run, but this is where Harvard Extended ends. Thanks for reading!

Ian Lamont
ALM '08

(Update: Since writing this post, I have launched a company which is dedicated to helping people understand complicated technologies and concepts. Besides creating online posts which address questions such as What Is Dropbox and What Is Google Drive, I have also published a series of guides under the In 30 Minutes brand.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Distance education at Harvard: I'm not convinced

This post was originally part of my epic last entry for the Harvard Extended blog, but I have decided to split it off and post it now.

It's a criticism of the Extension School's aggressive expansion into online/distance education. It's difficult for me to express, considering a good friend in the ALB program is completing his degree remotely. In addition, I have never taken an online class for credit at the Extension School -– all of my coursework was completed in person on Harvard's campus. Still, I have given this issue a great deal of thought, and I want to discuss it here.

I feel the Extension School's distance education push has gone too far. It's one thing for the Extension School to offer online lectures to people who want to sample Harvard's incredible faculty and course offerings. But 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. Students can earn certificates in environmental management or applied sciences without ever stepping foot inside a Harvard classroom.
the distance education window. Source: HES website, Sept. 3 2008I don't doubt the drive or abilities of these students (after all, some ALB candidates get better grades than their Harvard College counterparts in shared classes) but I am questioning the degree to which the Extension School has embraced for-credit online classes as an alternate means of educating students and awarding degrees. At the same time, I accept that the Internet offers benefits that are impossible to realize in the Extension School's real-world campus. Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? I am not convinced that they do – at least not yet.

Neil Rudenstine, Source: Harvard News OfficeThe Internet and its role in education have been discussed for many years at Harvard. In May of 1996, in an address to the First Harvard University Conference on the Internet and Society, President Neil Rudenstine recognized that the Internet was not just another mass media or communications technology, like the telegraph, radio, or television. In the educational sphere, the Internet represented a "real transformation." It was a technology that broadened access to data and course materials, reinforced methods of study, and enabled the sharing of knowledge in new and exciting ways:
"We know that the constant exchange of ideas and opinions among students -- as well as faculty -- is one of the oldest and most important forms of education. … The Internet allows this process of dialogue -- of conversational learning -- to be transferred easily and flexibly into electronic form. Communication can be carried on at all hours, across distances, with people who are on-campus or off-campus."
(Source: Neil L. Rudenstine, Pointing Our Thoughts. Harvard University Press, 2001, 123.)

For students at the Extension School, the Internet has certainly provided a special link. None of us live on campus. Many of us don't even live in Boston or Cambridge. Email, instant messaging, and the Web have provided connections to the school and to each other. These technologies have brought us closer, and they have also empowered us. My own thesis would have been impossible out without the Web. I used it to access HOLLIS and the LexisNexis Academic service, download text analysis software, and pass drafts back and forth with my thesis director while he traveled between Cambridge, Washington, and China. This blog is a product of the Web revolution, as is ExtensionStudent.com, where students and alumni gather to discuss classes, share advice, and debate issues relating to the Extension School.

But I am skeptical that distance education based on asynchronous Internet technologies (i.e., prerecorded video, online forums, and email) is a substitute for live classroom discussion and other on-campus interaction. Distance education students can't raise their hands to ask instructors questions or participate in discussions, and it's difficult or impossible for them to take advantage of faculty office hours. Teaching assistants don't always respond to email, and online class discussion boards can be neglected by students and faculty alike. In this sense, the "process of dialogue" is actually limited by technology. The main benefits of distance education become issues of convenience and access – being able to watch lectures at any time from any location, replay important sections, and see lectures by professors who otherwise don't teach live classes at the Extension School.

President Rudenstine saw some of these limitations. "No one should believe that electronic communication can be –- or should be -– a substitute for direct human contact," he said in his 1996 address. He stated that some technologies "permit an extension of the scope, continuity, and even the quality of certain forms of interaction," but added "communication over the network lacks other absolutely essential aspects of ‘real' conversations in the presence of ‘real' people."

Since then, the University has treaded very cautiously with online education. There have been a few isolated initiatives, and online video lectures and downloadable course materials are offered to Harvard alumni. But only the Extension School has made a serious attempt to develop an online curriculum and allow some students who live in other states or other countries to complete the majority of their classes remotely. Every year I see an increase in the number of online options, and the HES website currently boasts more than 100 online classes, out of more than 600 total.

This leads me to ask: If Harvard's other professional schools -– not to mention practically every other institute of higher education in America -- fail to regard online education as an acceptable substitute for in-class instruction, then why does the Extension School put them on the same plane? In the absence of any official explanation, I will offer my own speculation:
  1. The school really believes the convenience of online education and the chance to expose students to special Harvard faculty outweigh the disadvantages outlined above. If this is the case, the Extension School has failed to communicate or explain its reasoning, other than offering feel-good marketing copy ("Harvard Caliber, Course Credit") on the HES website. Also, if the DCE feels that distance education is an acceptable substitute for in-person instruction, then why do certain degree programs (such as my own, the ALM/Liberal Arts) insist on a much higher level of in-class experience than the ALB and ALM in IT?
  2. Opening up the course catalogue to out-of-state and international students has greatly expanded the Extension School's customer base, and increased revenues. The interest in these programs is huge -- every week, my Web traffic stats for Harvard Extended show visitors from all over the world searching for terms like "Harvard online MBA" and "Harvard online degree." The Extension School does not offer an online MBA, and the undergraduate ALB requires 16 out of 128 credits to be taken on campus, but no matter: The course offerings, the Harvard brand, and the possibility of completing between 50% and 90% of certain degrees' class requirements online are attractive enough for thousands of people take HES distance education classes casually or for credit. This has generated many millions of dollars in revenue for the Extension School over the last 10 years. However, it's not clear whether annual revenue is enough to offset costs -- distance education classes require a great deal of coordination to prepare and teach, not to mention significant hardware and software investments (hosting, editing, cameras, etc.)
  3. Distance education dovetails with the Harvard Extension School's mission to offer Harvard's educational resources to members of the community. Dean Shinagel references this in his welcome message on the HES website, noting that "we stand ready to serve the community, be it local or global."
  4. Harvard recognizes that the Internet is going to fundamentally transform education, and it wants to be prepared for the inevitable revolution. The Extension School has become Harvard's laboratory of sustained innovation and experimentation for distance education technologies and best practices.
The last theory is a stretch, but it intrigues me the most. The Internet has already transformed many aspects of society and human communication, and it's not unreasonable to imagine a future in which people participate in "conversational learning" and the "process of dialogue" even if they are not physically sitting at desks in the same room as their professors and classmates.

CyberLaw, offered by the Extension School and Berkman Center. Source: video vidi visum : virtual learning, teaching, and virtual technologies blogIn fact, I agree with this vision. I just don't think it can be realized with streaming video, email, and online discussion forums alone.

Virtual worlds offer some hope for making highly interactive distance education a reality, and in fact the Extension School is a pioneer in this field, thanks to a partnership with the Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But, as of mid-2008, the virtual world platforms and applications used for distance education are only halfway there. The interfaces are difficult to use, the environments are hard to build and prone to unexpected problems in terms of behavior and connectivity, and in-world meetings can't scale. This technology definitely is not ready for large-scale adoption (Disclosure: I am a board member of the non-profit Immersive Education initiative, which is trying to develop and promote virtual world technologies and best practices for education).

Where does that leave the Extension School? Certainly, it's in a great position to capitalize on powerful technology and social trends, and potentially become a model for Harvard's other schools. But in the meantime, the technology is just not there. While I believe distance education is a worthy experiment, it is not a substitute for real-world instruction and discussion, and mostly online degrees should not be a part of a part of the Extension School's offerings.

Later this month, I'll be taking my first online class, Michael Sandel's Justice. It won't be for credit, but will give me some more insights into distance education. Maybe it will even change my mind. I also welcome other Extension School students to post their own thoughts on distance education below. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks that I missed? Can anyone describe what the academic research says about distance education? Am I being unfair to the Extension School and students working remotely? To what degree should distance education for credit be allowed using current technologies? What is the future of online education?

Update: Richard at ClueHQ has posted a lengthy response: Is Distance Education a Problem at Harvard?. He is a distance ed student in the ALB program, and his insights are definitely worth reading.

2nd Update: I have responded to Richard's essay in a comment on ClueHQ. Here's the preamble:
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.
I describe specific advantages of in-class dialogue vs. their online components in the comment as well. You can read the entire comment here.

3rd Update: I have written about my own experience with distance education after sampling a class through the Harvard Alumni Association. See "Follow-up: My online education experience" on the I, Lamont blog.

4th update: Since writing this post, I have taken an online math class for credit, and have this to say about the online education experience:

Some of my other writings about online education:

Saturday, August 30, 2008

In the digital age, Widener is "almost a museum"

Earlier this week, I was lamenting the state of research and the dissemination of knowledge in academia. Despite the incredible tools at the disposal of students, scholars, and professors, paper is still the medium of choice when it comes to publishing research and sharing knowledge.

I am not alone. This morning I was reading the September-October issue of Harvard Magazine, and spotted this quote from Venkatesh Narayanamurti, the outgoing dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences:
"I believe that the liberal-arts education of the twenty-first century has to be different," he says, noting that information is no longer centered in Widener Library. "The library made Harvard -- we have always had the rarest things, the best repository of knowledge, [but] information now is digital; it is on the Web. Widener Library is very valuable, but it is almost a museum."
When it comes to publishing, the Extension School is also very much oriented toward paper. Theses are bound in buckram and end up on shelves in Grossman Library. They may never be seen or read outside of the university community.

I really hope to see the Extension School and other academic units at Harvard embrace digital publishing and other Web-based ways of distributing knowledge in the next few years, so our collective efforts can be truly shared with the world, rather than being restricted to the museums of paper that dominate the campus.Widener Library, photo by Ian Lamont

Update: I just found out that in February of 2008, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences approved a plan that will "post finished academic papers online free, unless scholars specifically decide to opt out of the open-access program." The source indicates that the policy applies to professors, but it's not clear whether student papers or research will be published online as well.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Taking Sandel's online "Justice" course

Harvard's Michael Sandel, JusticeI received an invitation through the Harvard Alumni Association to take "Justice" online. The class is taught by Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard's government department. I've heard about this class for years, and the preview looked fascinating. It's a great opportunity to take it online for free.

It looks like it will require a significant time commitment. There are 24 streamed sessions starting in September, plus opportunities to discuss the class with other alumni and even Professor Sandel. But it's a commitment I am willing to make. This is not just because the class looks interesting, but also because I have never taken online classes at Harvard, even though they were offered at the Extension School when I was a student there. I have some strong opinions about online education and its place at Harvard (which I will discuss in my final post for Post Harvard), but also realize that my viewpoints are limited by a lack of experience.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thoughts on research, and saved by Scribd

When scholars from the year 2058 look back on the current state of academic research and the dissemination of knowledge, they surely will marvel at the fact that so much of it remained oriented toward printed words on paper.

It is a surprising situation. Never mind that nearly all educated members of early 21st century society are already familiar with the World Wide Web, the most extensive and accessible publishing and communications tool ever invented. Despite this, many facets of the academic world remain firmly planted in the ways of the early 20th century. Whether it's writing a term paper or conducting a major research project, the fruits of students' and scholars' efforts usually end up as printed sheets of paper destined for a professor's mailbox, a filing cabinet or a university library. Even a doctoral dissertation that takes years to complete is probably going to exist as a paper hard copy in just one or two locations. The insights contained in it may never be read by more than a handful of people.

This is not to suggest that academics are Luddites. Far from it -- most students and educators are very familiar with email, search engines, online databases, and Microsoft Word. But even if students use software programs to make and distribute a term paper or thesis proposal, electronic copies hardly ever venture beyond the hard drives of the students who created them, or the inboxes of the professors who received and graded them. On occasion, high-level research will be deemed good enough for a wider audience, but all too often these works remain restricted to books or journal articles that can only be seen in university libraries or expensive, password-protected databases. Fifty years from now, the scholars of the future will marvel at all of the ideas, hypotheses, evidence, analysis that were expressed but were only shared with a limited slice of humanity, despite the ubiquity of the Web and the many software tools at our disposal to share them with a much wider audience. This system will not only be viewed as inefficient, it will be regarded as isolating researchers from potential sources of knowledge and preventing them from making discoveries and improving our understanding of the world around us.

But there is hope. I have mentioned initiatives at MIT, Berkeley, and elsewhere that are attempting to leverage the power of the Web to spread knowledge more widely (see Online education, sharing knowledge, and a proposal for Harvard and UC Berkeley's free lectures on YouTube). Harvard Extended itself represents my own personal effort to share my experiences, observations, and research findings with a wider audience, and has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations -- Google Analytics tells me that more than 3,000 visits to Harvard Extended have taken place in the past 30 days, and nearly 85,000 visits have occurred since I first started using the tool in May of 2006.

Still, I want to do more. My blogging on Harvard Extended will come to an end in the next week, and it bothers me that the class papers I worked so hard on over the years do not have a permanent online home. Collectively, they took many hundreds of hours to research and write, and were shaped by my interactions with Extension School instructors, including members of Harvard's faculty. What a waste if they were to be resigned to a box of old papers in my basement, or a file directory on my hard drive. When I was still a student at the Extension School, I posted some of them to a fas.harvard.edu Web server. Unfortunately, I lost my FAS computing privileges when I graduated earlier this year, but I think I've found an alternate solution: Scribd.

Scribd is kind of like the YouTube of electronic documents. Registered users can upload their PDF or Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and random .txt scribblings. Anyone with a Flash-enabled Web browser can view them, or even embed them on their own websites, just like you can do with YouTube videos. The database is searchable and indexed by Google, meaning that people anywhere can readily find specific documents, if they use the right search terms.

So, I've taken a half-dozen papers and uploaded them to Scribd. The idea is to share them with my readers on Harvard Extended, and anyone else who finds them interesting. I've linked them below, and embedded one of them in this post -- my final research paper for HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext). You can read them in your Web browser, or download a PDF copy, but I've disabled text and Word exports to discourage plagiarism. Here are the papers, starting with the research proposal I prepared as part of my proseminar back in the winter of 2003:

Defining a Territorial Sea: China's South China Sea Policy in the 1950s and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea (research proposal)
  • January 2004. Harvard DCE/SSCI E-100B (Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences), Joe and Doug Bond, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University
Historical Nationalism: How Interpretation of China's Past is Used to Build Unity in the Present
  • August 2004. Harvard DCE/Archaeology S-171 (Archaeology of the Silk Road), Irene Good, Peabody Museum, Harvard University
China's Emerging Overseas Chinese Policy in the Late 1970s and Implications for Ethnic Chinese Communities in Vietnam and Kampuchea
  • May 2005. Hist E-1834 (Chinese Emigration in Modern Times), Professor Philip Kuhn, Harvard University
Evaluating Official Attitudes Toward Post-Mao Chinese Film Through a Quantitative Lens
  • August 2006. History S-1855 (Film and History in Postwar Japan and Post-Mao China), Prof. Charles Hayford, Visiting Scholar, History, Northwestern University
Proposal for a Thesis in the Field of History in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Master of Liberal Arts Degree
  • February 2006. Prof. Donald Ostrowski and Prof. Alastair Iain Johnston, Harvard University
The Rise of the Press in Late Imperial China
  • November 2007. HUMA E-105 (Survey of Publishing, from Text to Hypertext), Matthew Battles, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I am also embedding the last paper I ever completed for the Extension School in January of this year, which was also for Battles' excellent survey class. It's quite fitting that it should end up here, as the class discussed the history of the written language from the time of the Sumerians through Gutenberg's printing revolution and finally the beginning of the current publishing revolution taking place on the Web. I took things a step further, and looked at emerging Web-based software technologies and photorealistic 3D environments. It's entitled Video, Computer-Generated Environments and the Future of the Web: One thing that's missing from this small collection of papers is the most important paper of my Extension School career: my thesis (title: Making a Case for Quantitative Research in the Study of Modern Chinese History: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993). There's are several reasons I have not included it here. While Scribd is a very easy way to host documents, one thing that Scribd does not have is a vetting process or a reputation for reliability. The contents of an academic journal will have been vetted by experts and editors, and quality will be high. On Scribd, anybody can publish anything without it being vetted by anyone, and quality is mixed. For academic papers published on Scribd, the good appears alongside the bad. You'll find astounding creative works and rigorously designed research projects, as well as limp efforts at scholarly writing and even deliberate misinformation. Users can flag offensive content and copyright violations, but the process is flawed and leaves a lot of bad content on Scribd's servers. Interesting or quality content can also be highlighted by readers and illuminated with comments, but this system is imprecise in that it does not differentiate the praise from a 15-year-old kid trying to finish his homework and a 60-year-old university professor who stumbles upon a great paper on Scribd through a search on Google.

You'll have to take my word that all of the above papers were submitted to Harvard faculty or Extension School instructors for review, and all received excellent grades. However, the weaknesses in the Scribd system have convinced me to hold off on reposting my thesis on scribd.com. I want it to have the largest possible impact on my field, and I don't believe it will have that impact if posted to Scribd. Instead, I am holding out hope for a Harvard-sponsored solution. Nearly two years ago, I petitioned the Extension School to archive masters theses in the same electronic database used for doctoral dissertations at Harvard, ProQuest UMI (Update: My thesis is now available through UMI/ProQuest). While this is a closed database that can only be accessed through university library systems, it is restricted to vetted, accepted research from university masters and doctoral programs. It is widely used in academic circles -- in fact, the literature review in my thesis referenced several dissertations that I had located in the ProQuest UMI database. I hope that someday my own thesis might also be useful to future scholars of modern Chinese history, Cold War history, and Chinese media studies, if Harvard decides to extend this resource to ALM theses from the Extension School.