Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Harvard Extended interviews the creator of the Extension Student online community

Previous interviews on Harvard Extended have explored academics at the Harvard Extension School, but for this installment, we will be exploring community -- specifically, the new online community, Extension Student, which launched late last month. Already Extension Student boasts a small but active group of undergraduate and graduate students who want to talk about issues ranging from distance education to whether the Extension School should set up a PhD program.

Setting up an online community for Extension School students is not a new idea. HESA has made noise about building an online forum before, but nothing ever got done. Finally, an ALM candidate who is about to graduate decided to create a forum on his own. I know him from a class we took in 2005, but online he's asked not to be identified by name. A transcript of the email interview follows:

Ian Lamont, Harvard Extended: Why are you creating this online forum?
Extension Student: First of all, thank you for having me on your blog. We all know that Harvard Extension Students complain of the lack of interaction among themselves. But what few of us realize is that this is a problem elsewhere at Harvard too. Students at the College write Crimson articles bemoaning the lack of social space outside of exclusive finals clubs, graduate students in GSAS feel too competitive to hang out with fellow graduate students, and too far removed from undergraduates, those at the Medical School are altogether away from Cambridge, and so on. Most people feel at once part of, but separate from, that elusive place called Harvard, then graduate, and move on. At the Extension School, there are hundreds of students commuting to class each day. Those in the degree programs have the most at stake, and have the greatest need to feel that they are part of the institution. Right now, some graduate without getting to know a single fellow student in the same program. That is really not good for anyone, including Harvard when it comes looking for alumni to help out. There is also a lot of misunderstanding out there of what the Extension School is, what it means to be a degree candidate at the school, and what the degree means on your resume or CV. We need to know about and discuss these issues frankly, and in private. Being Extension School students, we have a vested interest in enhancing the prestige of our own school, of making it work for us, and it is really up to us. I've looked at the way different social organizations work and come to the conclusion that the most benefit is derived when alumni form informal networks with current students. I wanted to create such an informal network.
Ian: How long did it take to build it, and what tools did you use?
ES: About 48 hours, and then a week of fine tuning. I'm using all open-source tools, with a lot of customization of the look and feel. It looks really simple, but simple tools are best. I'm not a fan of overdone sites. It has to work fast, and get the job done.
Ian: Why didn't you ask HESA or HES for help with this project?
ES: I was involved in student government for several years at my undergrad school, and I just don't want to go that way. I think it is better to build a project all by yourself and then if it takes off, slowly give up control of it to those interested rather than have a committee decide to do something as a team. Student government leaders tend to be an ambitious and motivated group, but they change all the time, out for the next big thing in their career. So projects are often neglected as people move on. Plus, I wanted this to be an informal networking opportunity and not have all the restrictions that being Harvard affiliated would involve.
Ian: What are the costs involved, in terms of hosting and your personal time?
ES: I'm not keeping track of costs. It is just something that I'm doing, and plan on keeping up as long as it remains relevant.
Ian: Do you plan on using advertisements to support it?
ES: I hate online advertisements, they really shouldn't be there for those who are regularly posting and reading the forum, and they won't be. But as a practical matter, ads will be integrated in non-intrusive ways for guest visitors, and you're welcome to buy your Harvard T shirt or book through the Extension Student Shop too.
Ian: Can students discuss or rate teachers and classes?
ES: The forum is designed so that posting can be anonymous, if you so wish. At the same time, you can be assured that the only ones with access are those with some kind of Harvard affiliation, since a address is required to register. Some people dislike anonymous posts, but I think they allow a certain level of critique that can be beneficial. I'm posting as Catamount, an old English word for a wildcat, with the pun that a cat sees at night, much like we are obliged to do in the Yard going to classes. So yes, you can rate classes and instructors all you wish.
Ian: How will you moderate the forum for spam, flames, and trolls?
The biggest annoyance of online forums today is automated or semi-automated commercial spam. As soon as a forum opens up, operation spam kicks in. Someone, somewhere, is paying less than minimum wage for a guy sitting in an internet cafe in the middle of nowhere to plug a product on hundreds of forums, guest books, and blogs a day. Since those kinds of visitors are unlikely to have a Harvard email account, I think we are safe from that annoyance. And I do like freedom of speech.
Parts of the Extension Student site can be browsed by the public, but to post a topic, respond to a thread, or see the other sections that deal specifically with the undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, you'll need to register with a Harvard email address.

If you are a Harvard Extension School student, and would like to take part in the Harvard Extended interview series, please email me at

Related resources:

Harvard Extended Interview Series: An ALM management concentrator

Harvard Extended Interview Series: Cynthia Iris, ALM government concentrator

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