Monday, January 21, 2008

Thoughts on the ALB program: "The best undergraduate education possible"

My Google Blog search feed delivered an interesting item today: An appraisal of the Harvard Extension School's undergraduate ALB program, from a student who just finished his last class. Here's what the author of the Cyber Oppression blog had to say about his academic journey:
Overall I feel that I received the best undergraduate education possible. It was a great honor to study and then be a TA under Tom Hayes and run the Physics 123 lab — I think it’s entirely possible that Tom is the best introductory circuit design teacher in the world, and I know I am in great company. It was also a great honor to study cyberlaw at the Berkman center of Harvard law — as an undergraduate, I was able to take more IP, patent, copyright and digital law classes than are available at most law schools, including Larry Lessig’s former class “The Technology and Politics of Control”. I also learned Spanish with Professora Zetterstrand, studied the history of Boston under Robert Allison, and of course studied number theory, probability, topology, calculus, linear algebra, group theory, graph theory, etc. under professors Martinez, Boller, Winters, Bamberg, Towne. Astronomy at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Physics in the science center… comparative religious ethics and modern/contemporary American fiction in Harvard Hall. Museum studies with Mary Malloy (and the future directors of a couple dozen museums in the museum studies program), game theory with Neugeboren (who himself studied under Schelling, whose son Robert is also a close personal friend), psychology under Fersch, and the history of electronic music with Marshall all were brilliant courses also. So many of these professors were the best at what they do — leaders in their fields, the ones who wrote the books. And even though this was a "night school" program, Harvard refused to lower the bar and never failed to challenge me; many of the professors talked about how the curriculum in the college vs. night school was exactly the same, and in a number of cases the student projects and work in the night school exceeded that produced by the day students.
He's not the only person to note that some Extension School students do better than their Harvard College counterparts; this was one of the findings of a 2006 Crimson article (see Crimson: Some virtual Extension School students outperform Harvard College classmates).

The author of Cyber Oppression also discusses how physically and mentally taxing his ALB studies have been over the last six years. I can really sympathize -- as I have noted repeatedly on my own blog, the research and writing demands associated with the ALM program are punishing, and go far beyond simply attending class. For those of us who have full-time jobs and families, study generally takes place late at night and on the weekends, usually at the expense of personal and family life. The ALM or ALB programs at the Extension School are not casual endeavors -- they require major intellectual, academic, and personal commitments, and take years to complete.


Brandon Ruse said...

i'd like to discuss the possibility of handing off Harvard Extended to me as I'm in the ALB program and, if you are interested, I could continue to update the blog. Thanks Ian!

Brandon Ruse

Nina said...

I took Physics 123 in the extension school from Tom Hayes back in 81 or 82, and it was literally a life-changing experience. He is a genuinely inspiring teacher.

Henry AA '01, ALB '06 said...

I've done all of my academic work at HES, so here are my comments. Perspective, it all depends what is important to you at the particular time in your life.

While I agree that financially you get a great bargain at HES, as well as access to the fantastic library system, a recurring theme throughout this blog history has been the lack of student identity.

Some of the "lecturers" are teaching at HES for the extra cash, and while some are fantastic dynamic teachers there are others that lack many qualities. There is not a whole lot of consistency through the arts: some docs push and challenge you, while others are fluff and host 'gimme' courses.

All classes should be held to the standard of "writing intensive" I find HES's lack of academic toughness to be laughable.

Identity alone was the worst experience, for me, at Harvard Unviersity. In retrospect, I should have gone to Boston College at nights. At least BC seems to really promote the night time students as much as they do the traditional day time kids. Harvard projects the image they are about money, not students, not teachers, not education, but money. BC is about money, but they do not segregate the student populations.

Nothing stinks of isolation more than FAS - quite honestly as a HES student and alum I've always felt like an outsider, less while at 51 Brattle Street. harvard is the school, a big repuation. To get in Harvaard College is a milestone and honor, HES is not Harvard College by any means; they are two completely different schools.

Several other litte things about HES bothered me too, like anytime I mention that I'd matriculated to Harvard University I'm usually asked, "...which house do you belong?" Once I've clarified I am an HES graduate it is usually met with a disapproving "oh." Because many in the Harvard community (less HES) view HES as not really "Harvard" because of open enrollment, lack of class identity, the house system/social-networking aspect. Hell, HES even uses a unique differentiating ID Card than all of the other schools! HES had a brochure that helped explain some of this in '97, it was titled, "Is This Really Harvard?" (that should have been the red flag for me).

Typically most traditional (day time students) undergrad activities are held at night, who the hell wants to meet up for a discussion of the Social Impact of Wooden Bowls on Domestical Tranquility During the Enlightenment at 51 Brattle at 7:30 on a Friday night when most HES students are commuters from metrowest, north shore, south shore, the 'burbs, etc.

Now, as a nuts and bolts night time school HES is OK, functional and practical, but a major downside is that you do not even get a real "major" from HES on your degree or degree status. We earn a Bachelors of LIberal Arts in Extension Studies (WTF does that mean to a potential employer - again a lot of verbal dancing around to explain). HES is kind of on par with Framingham State College, or University of Southern Maine, but even they have much more rigorous enrollment requirements unlike HES.

In retrospect, yes, I regret that I had not gone to BC at night; though it would have more expensive I do believe acceptance in the student and alum community would have been more welcomed than at Harvard. This is an important factor, to some degree locally, as New England is a college rich area of America. As a nuts and bolts school, HES they taught me the seven liberal arts for very little money.

I do think a night time degree from BC or BU would be more practical and academically sound than HES.


ian said...

HWP, thanks for your comments. A lot of the issues you touch upon are actually the topics of sometimes heated discussion on the Extension Student forum, such as the ridiculous "Extension Studies" designation on our degrees.

I have to question your statement about the lecturers who teach for "extra cash". Compensation is certainly a motivation for any lecturer at any school, but you seem to be suggesting that these lecturers are only in it for the money, and could care less about the curriculum and work of the students. That has not been my experience -- I'd say about one-third of the lecturers I've had were external (i.e., no current Harvard teaching affiliation) but all had been teaching at the Extension School for years, and included some of the most foremost experts in the world on their respective fields of study (such as Thomas O'Connor, probably the most well-known and prolific expert on Boston's history). Another external lecturer, Sally Hadden, taught the hardest classes I have ever taken, and taught me how to create precis, which were instrumental in my thesis research.

Lastly, as someone who attended B.C.'s Evening College (now the Woods College of Advancing Studies) in the early part of this decade, I can say that prevailing community sentiment was no tighter there than it is at HES. I did get together with some students and an instructor who were developing a fascinating p2p application, but there wasn't any other special activities involving students, either organized by the school or students themselves. The one thing that BC did do that really impressed me was organizing an audience with the dean and faculty at the beginning of each school year. This is something that the Harvard Summer School kind of does, but the Extension School never does -- I have only seen Dean Shinagel once, at a brief ceremony marking the end of a long-term professor's career.

jcbmack said...

I am finding these discussions interesting. So let us say I went for a Masters degree through HES, could I major in Psychology, what about a second Bachelors? Would I be able to major in something or would it just say Liberal Arts?
I think any education, whether traditional or non-traditional you really teach yourself, however, HES sounds like it may not offer too mcuh support for distance learners.
Some of the HES blogs by current and graduating students seem to be written by extremely well educated, articulate and intelligent people, but perhaps these people represent the best HES has and not the norm. Again each indivdual makes there own experience, but it seems like HES is greatly stigmatized.

jcbmack said...

Here is a practical question or two: As alumni of HES, what are your emplyment outcomes? Did you transfer with relative ease to another college of decent reputation? Do prospective employers respect your degree, even if they know the difference between Harvard College and HES degrees?

epictetus said...

(I'm the poster from Cyber Oppression who was quoted above)... in response to the questions about "identity" and the problems of explaining HES to an employer, etc. I consider myself a true student who loves knowledge for its own sake -- a HES degree doesn't necessarily guarantee that a person had a great education. However, the opportunities at HES are unparalleled -- you compare it to Framingham State or USM; there's no way I could have become a TA in a class like E-123 and study under someone like Tom Hayes anywhere else. They might have some good professors, but I can walk into any electronics lab anywhere in the world, point at "The Art of Electronics" on the shelf, and tell them I TA'ed the class at Harvard that the book was written for.

Similarly on the cyberlaw front -- the opportunities an undergraduate night student has to actually work on real projects and get involved at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society are unparalleled anywhere.

There are certainly classes and professors at HES that aren't very good -- but the level of opportunities available for those who are willing to go the "extra mile" and use their chance to get involved with some of the very, very smart people who are at Harvard are not going to be found anywhere else. This isn't for everyone -- if you aren't at an academic level where you can make the most of the difficult classes and special opportunities, and are more concerned about what the minimum level of class is at the school or what the degree will mean to an employer in the Boston area (anywhere else in the world, unless you run into someone who went to Harvard themselves, they aren't going to know the difference or care), maybe you should choose a different program.

Anonymous said...

Um, I don't think the degree says in extension studies anymore. you can list your concentration on your resume. think that changed a year or two back. You do list Harvard University, not Harvard College, but unless someone is familiar with the program they probably wouldn't know the difference.

ian said...

The degree is Latin, but it is recorded as "in Extension Studies" by the University on your transcript and in alumni records.

Considering there is no class in "extension studies," and students study real subjects under Harvard faculty in standard departments (economics, history, etc.) it is a ridiculous and unfair designation. The school seems to recognize this; the official guidelines do not require people to use it on their resumes.


Anonymous said...

Folks, I don't mean to ruffle anyone's feathers but there's no state program in Massachusetts, including the top depts at let's say UMass/Amherst, like linguistics, which compares to Harvard Extension.

In the end, UMass = UMass, a state school system in near permanent decline, since the 80s. Thus, tuition-wise, if Harvard Extension is at par with UMass, then for all intensive purposes, it's the best program in Massachusetts.

The very best student at HES can take classes, as a Special Student at either Harvard College or MIT, in Linguistics and by junior year, be one of the top undergrads in that concentration, above those at peer schools.

In addition, has anyone considered a junior year transfer to let's say Penn State online, the Univ of Illinois online, or the London School of Economics at U of L, also online?