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, 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:


Anonymous said...

Ian, I'm a degree candidate (near the end of my program); I've taken a class online (which I liked); and, I agree with you that Extension has gone too far in its distance education options. One should not be able to do most of the degree online. Auditing or taking a class or two, sure. But the degree programs should be working to overcome the fact Ext. students do not live on-campus or have a class cohort rather than making it easier to be less connected.

My previous career was in higher ed. around Boston. Any division of Conti. Ed/Extension has the primary mandate to make money. Offering classes online advances that goal. Letting a student take classes online to get the degree may bring more students and money to Ext. but it is counter to making a "community" and degrades the learning experience - discussions via email are more sterile, less rich than in person. Also, it's harder to have a connection to the prof. online. 'Face time' matters.

I Lamont said...

Thanks, anonymous. Can you give any more specific information about the online experience? Did the instructor or TA make a real effort to connect with the online students? What were the student discussions like using the tools at your disposal?

Anonymous said...

A different anonymous holds a different opinion.
Whether a student takes a course online or in person, the required reading is the same, the graded homework is the same, and the finals are the same. It follows that, at the end of the class, the online student have proved his mastery of the material exactly to the same degree an off-line student has, and should be recognized equally.
It is true that for some people, their learning experience might be less effective in an online surrounding. Very well, they should not pursue classes online. But we are all adults; those of us that don't need to be in the same room as the professor on Tuesdays at 16:45 weekly, should not be forced to. Those who succeed in their courses taken remotely, however, proved that, for them, remote education works.

I Lamont said...

Anonymous 2: I understand what you are getting at, and indeed, I pointed out in the original post that some HES students have gotten top grades -- one indication that they have mastered the material.

But are good grades, well-written papers, and checking off all of the lessons on the course syllabus the ultimate purpose of an education? I don't think so. If that were the case, why bother even having video? Why not have online classes based on transcripts of the lectures, assigned readings, and tests, and assign grades and award credit that way?

President Rudenstine referenced the importance of conversational learning and "direct human contact." Most classes I have taken also recognize the importance of learning and the exchange of ideas through discussion; that's one of the reasons "class participation" is a component of the grading process. This is the element that's missing from the Extension School's current distance education offerings. Unless the technology evolves beyond its current asynchronous nature, and faculty make a strong effort to engage with distance ed students, I don't see this situation changing.

Anonymous said...

My beef is not with the medium, it is with the content.

I completed (thesis pending) my Harvard ALM (liberal arts major) bricks and mortar style from day one. I further made sure that every course save for the writing requirement was actually at the graduate level, that is, listed in the Harvard course catalog as either “primarily for undergraduates / graduates” or “primarily graduates.” All were replicates of courses offered on campus during the day, taught by the same professor. I also availed myself of the GSAS enrollment option while going full time at four courses for one semester.

Meanwhile, I felt that the rule regarding adjunct offerings was already being stretched some 2-3 years back. Sure, you could only take two such courses for your ALM, but then again, summer school professors did not count, so conceivably you could end up with say, 6 of your 9 courses being taught by individuals with little to no meaningful affiliation with Harvard. When people think of a degree form Harvard, they generally presume your professor did not come from Tufts or Boston College, offering up syllabi based on courses from their home institutions (even if they do occasionally present a paper to a research group on campus as a “Research Associate at Harvard University”). Consequently, I believe there is a strong difference between the degree that will be given to me come June and some other ALM’s that are conferred.

However - and to the heart of this post - what particularly bothers me about this online expansion is that many courses offered over the net by HES are actually introductory freshman courses that are then rebranded as being upper division collegiate, even graduate level! This seems very dishonest to me, and almost a matter for an accreditation agency to look into. Sure, the professors slap on some paper at the end, but it appears to me to be little more than a band aid on a serious breach of administrative integrity.

To conclude, while the Harvard ALM afforded me a reasonably priced expansion into a second academic field after college, and a unique bridge to a full-time, Ivy MA, I generally cannot speak too highly HES in general with these kinds of shenanigans going on. Sadly, much of the derision directed at HES by student of the more vaunted Harvard schools seems increasingly too the point.

Anonymous said...

Ian - I'm a dis-ed Harvard Ext student, and I have to stop you in the middle of this and say I've taken online courses, one of which was "an award winning" course at Berkeley. I expected something difficult, something that would challenge me, hurt me, leaving me a bit battered but a bit more enlightened. The course was unbelievably basic, almost embarrassingly so. It's no exaggeration when I say I finished the entire course in two weeks minus the proctored final exam and business plan. I thought I'd missed something on the syllabus, but I missed nothing. When reading thru Harvard's criteria for this program and mandatory course for that degree, you wonder how hard can the online courses really be with a front this tedious. Well, I signed on for Ab Psych to test the waters, and it IS difficult. Initially I found the course messy and erratic, and frustrating, but it's a REAL course. I have to pay attention, hit my marks and not expect a cake walk just because it's online.

Unknown said...

So - does this mean that it is worth to get a Masters degree from the HES?
Also, with respect to getting a new job / promotion, does a degree hold its own?

I Lamont said...

Ali: The answer to both of your questions ultimately depends on the person. I know HES ALM graduates who have gone onto better jobs after they graduated, but surely that's not because of a piece of paper bearing the Harvard name -- it's because of who they are, and the many other qualities they display to the people who make hiring decisions.

Also, just to be clear: There is no "online degree" at Harvard. Every single one, including the two named in my blog post, require on-campus coursework. Myself and most of the graduates I know completed all HES coursework on campus.


Anonymous said...

I found this to be a interesting historic document. Certainly in 2008 the author made valid points as to the limitations of distance education and the efforts of the Extension school. Ten years later, many of the comments no longer seem applicable. Lectures are in many cases live--though recorded for viewing later. I can raise my hand, comment, participate in breakout sessions, talk live to the professor and other students, etc., etc. I have taken classes at Harvard live and online. If there is a big difference, it is not apparent to me.