Sunday, September 07, 2008

Final thoughts about Harvard Extension

(New: Launched @HarvardExtended twitter feed, April 2010. Launched Ipso Facto on a Harvard blogging platform in September 2011. See Harvard Extension School Success Stories from the Last Year, July 2021).

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. 

Other Extension School graduates attend highly selective master's and PhD programs at Oxford, Yale, and elsewhere.

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.)


Anonymous said...

Bravo, Ian!

Anonymous said...

Ian! Your blog is truly informative and helpful to people who are considering further education at Harvard Extension School. Thank you SO MUCH for everything you've done and I enjoy reading your blog. Best of luck for your future endeavors.

Jeryl Cook said...

thanks for the information. Havard would have not received to flack if they did not have this phrase "Extension School" ..and just kept it "Harvard University" with an exception can take courses online.

Anonymous said...

I hope they don't change the school's name to "Continuing Studies". I totally agree that that name is very inconvenient for those students with long-term academic program. It would diminish the value of an ALM graduate degree. I know that it's difficult to choose a name because of the two types of students with different academic purpose. A possibility is to choose a proper noun, as the 'Radcliffe Institute' at Harvard, which has a broad purpose too. Otherwise, it'd be better to keep the current name. I hope the administration hears the discontent of ALM students (I'm only a prospective for a graduate degree).

I Lamont said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Dave: I've heard informally that the "Continuing Studies" name change is off the table. No reasons were given.


Unknown said...

You mentioned that your research/thesis was challenging, so I have a question for you. What academic journals did you published your research work in? Do many Extension school students get their work published in academic journals?

I Lamont said...

Thanks, David, for your question. I did not try to get published in any history or communications journal. I have heard from Extension School faculty that some students do have their research published in the academic press, but I am unable to quantify how widespread it is. My impression is it's more common among the biology and other science majors, whose theses often are a neat fit for specific science journals.


Anonymous said...

Your blog has been a great help as I've begun my journey towards an ALM. I've started a blog as of today based on my journey.

I have completed 4 classes and am currently applying for admission to HES. The goal is an ALM with a concentration in the new International Relations program. Thanks again for all the information in your blog and I welcome you to folllow my blog as I aspire to be a Harvard alum.

I Lamont said...

Thanks, Rodomontades. I checked out your first post, and was reminded of my own start with the Extension School. I first took a creative writing class through the summer school, but then moved over to history and was hooked.

The class offerings are very broad, and it is amazing being in a class led by some of the top instructors and experts on the planet.

Good luck!


Ryan said...

Hi Ian, and a belatated congratulations on your accomplishment. I had a quick question for you regarding the thesis as I am about to begin the ALM program. I keep hearing people say they took a year (or more) to write the thesis. My question is does this include the thesis proposal phase or just the writing of the actual thesis paper from approval of your proposal to completion?
Thanks for any insight you can provide.

I Lamont said...

Ryan: Thanks for your message. You have nine months to get your thesis done, once your proposal is approved by the extension school AND you get a thesis director from FAS or elsewhere. But getting your proposal done takes a huge amount of time as well -- you have to decide on a research area, do a big chunk of your literature review, design a testable hypothesis, and then get it written up in a proposal format that the Extension School research advisor thinks is doable and will be accepted by a thesis director.

The total timeline is 18 months at a minimum. Two years is more likely.

Good luck!


Ryan said...

Ian, thanks for the quick response and the information. It is greatly appreciated.

As a follow up question. At what point (how far into the program) did you have at least a vague idea of what you would do your thesis on? I have two areas of interest, particularly "the troubles" in Ireland/Northern Ireland from the 1970's-late 90's or something on southern history. I suppose I will narrow that down further after I have gotten a feel for the faculty and which would be easier to find a TD for.

Just to echo some of the previous posters here, thank you for the blog. It has been a great resource for learning more about the ALM program.

I Lamont said...

Hi Ryan,

I knew from very early on (around the time I did my proseminar in 2003) that I wanted to do a thesis relating to some part of Chinese history. I considered doing something about maps and then Chinese warlordism (which was the subject of my proposal that I made during the proseminar) but after being exposed to some new research techniques during the proseminar, I decided upon doing a computer content analysis based on China's state-run media during a period of modern Chinese history. I used my methodology in a few classes in 2005 and 2006, and started my literature review around the same time.

What you're doing (deciding upon a general area) is fairly common. Over the next few years you can whittle it down, hopefully in conjunction with the other classwork that you are doing.



Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lee said...

Hi, I'm actually seeking some advice regarding Harvard's Extension School. I don't know if you (the owner of this blog) can answer my question, or if you could direct me to someone who could, but I'm 24 y/o, a nontraditional student (had to work a few years), recently got my Associates in Science from my local community college (graduated magna cum laude), and am presently studying for the MCAT. My goal is ultimately to go to medical school, but I need to complete a bachelors degree. I applied to several schools for transfer last year, but got rejected. I will try to apply for transfer again, but I'm looking at the HES as a possible way to obtain my bachelors degree in case I do not get accepted by any university/college. I'm just wondering, considering my situation, if that's the best route for me? Would an ALB look presentable to medical school or any employer?

It seems that this post hasn't had any recent comments, but I hope I could get some advice, if possible. Thanks in advance if you do answer!

I Lamont said...

Lee: Anyone who is able to complete the ALB will look presentable to an employer. It requires a great deal of dedication, academic skills, and intellectual curiosity.

An ALB is not a guarantee of admission into medical school. That said, ALB grads have gone onto medical school in the United States over the years. As you know the bar is high and stellar grades, MCATs, and other factors come into play.

I suggest you contact the ALB office directly to ask these questions, and also see about how many of your community college credits would transfer.

Good luck!


Lee said...

Ian, thanks for responding. I know that an ALB is not the ticket into medical school, that's why am studying for the MCAT. I will most certainly call HES to find out more information. Again, thank you for answering!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ian! your blog is very informative! I am a med school graduate reviewing for my USMLEs and i am considering to take graduate couse in Biology to venture into research after passing my tests...would you recommend having one course each semester if I would working full time (40+hours/week)? or would 2 courses be manageable in Biology? can you give me an idea how demanding HES is? Im contemplating on taking 1 vs. 2 courses this sem. Thanks!

I Lamont said...

To the last anonymous commenter who had a question about biology: Thanks for the question. Some people more knowledgeable than me have some answers on this comment thread on



Unknown said...

Hii...although I have read so much, I still feel I know nothing on the issue.
I am gonna be a graduate of Bachelor of Business Administration.I get more than 9 GPA(Our system is not on 4 CGPA but 10)
I would continue full time MBA here.Harvard Extension School had interested me with its offering and I'd thought of doing it along with my full-time degree here.
But I would definitely want to know if it will look good on my resume and what's the acceptance for it

I not only consider name of Harvard on degree but also learning from Harvard faculty.

Anonymous said...

I am considering this for my son. He ultimately wants to get a law degree. Is this a good option or should he go with a traditional program?

I Lamont said...

To the last anonymous poster asking about an HES degree as a precursor to law school:

Assuming that conventional four-year colleges are out of the question, I believe that the HES ALB (undergraduate degree) is a fine alternative, with a few caveats:

* Government/legal-related courses should be taken in person. I would also advise taking as many seminars in person as possible -- these are opportunities to get to personally know great professors and practice debate and arguments in a real-world environment
* The time to complete the degree may take longer than four years. It depends on your son's capacity, what courses are offered each semester, and restrictions/prerequisites.
* Your son should talk with an HES administrator or counselor as soon as possible, to better understand the environment and requirements for an ALB degree.



Anonymous said...

Hi, i am an international student and i would like to take the biotechnology masters course in harvard extension. But i read that they do not offer I-20 for the F1 visa. However, the summer school offers it. I would like to enroll as a full-time student in harvard extension. So pls provide me any guideline regarding this, as whether it will be good to first enroll in harvard summer school and then into the extension school??? I couldn't find any information in the net regarding this. Kindly throw some light in this matter, so that i could get a clear idea whether i would be issued a visa or not?

I Lamont said...

Anonymous international student:

I cannot shed any light on visa issues. What you need to do is pick up the phone and call the Extension School to ask their advice.

Good luck,


Sandra Galda said...

Just found this post now, very good information and a pleasure to read.I remember your name. I started my MLA degree in 2002 and graduated in 2008, History of Art and Architecture. Since then I have been working at Ingbretson Studios,(,at an atelier training in the Boston School of Painting, a Boston developed formal realism painting style that has endured for over 100 years. Think the Guild of Boston Artists in Newbury Street in Boston, Ma. I am not sure what I will do next, I may just paint and sell at galleries in a bigger way, add some private teaching of students, or teach at an arts college. Traditional academic/atelier training is a hot brand of art training today and I am glad to have it under my belt in addition to the Harvard Extension School's MLA.
Best wishes to you, I enjoyed your blog post!!!
Sandra Galda

Anonymous said...

Can someone here be honest about something? Isn't any degree or certificate from the Extension school, more *prestigious* than the very top depts from a public university, like Materials & Polymer Science at UMass or Electronics Engineering at Univ of Illinois?

I mean let's get real here... even the best low cost state unis, with top depts with minimal grade inflation, do not attract attention from recruiters in areas like consulting or financial services over any program at Harvard. The reality of the situation is that many students at the *real* Harvard (Arts & Sciences, JFK, etc), won't have it easy at many of these places but the general insular nature of the Harvard environs, protects students from seeing the realities of the world around them.

Harvard University, on the whole, is not out to flunk people. If one does the work, one gets through, and perhaps, gets a chance to interview at McKinsey during his one's exiting period. There are many places out there, where ppl basically flunk out during the 1st two years but then, even those who get through, aren't on the interview list for Morgan & Stanley w/o some connections from friends already there.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that how prestigious a degree or certificate from Harvard Extension depends entirely on the point of view of who is looking at your resume. Most people have absolutely no idea what the Extension School is, they don’t even know that Harvard is composed of several different schools, all they know is that Harvard is good as hell, expensive, selective and you have attended this “exclusive” school.

I’ve learned that trying to explain to anyone that doesn’t know HES that this school is somewhat different, but it is still Harvard, does more damage than good. You come off as trying to justify something for a reason they don’t understand and in the end they might think what you’re saying then is that you didn’t really go to Harvard. Other people, on the other hand, especially associated with the academia or employers in the Boston area know the difference pretty well and that might go either way: they like you because they know how good the Extension School actually is or they deem you a “fake”, trying to “pretend” you went to Harvard.

I would definitely not compare any degree or certificate at the Extension School with engineering from any place, even foreign schools. If you are an engineer, you are a different class of “worker” and it doesn’t matter much where you went to school, if it was Univ of Illinois, UCLA or a school in India. Unless you went to an Ivy League, Stanford or the MIT, all engineering degrees are treated equal.

Harvard Extension does not attract attention from recruiters, it’s worth mentioning. For the record, McKinsey, elitist as they are, would never hire a Harvard Extension graduate – they know the difference! The same is true for all the other consulting firms and banks that “like to prey” on Ivy League students. Like I said, for employers that know the difference between HES and the “rest” of Harvard, the effect is way worse than the reality, they think HES is “fake Harvard”.


Anonymous said...

To the last comment above:

I work in Human Resources. Staffing & Recruiting to be exact. I have worked for many employers and guess what.....NOBODY CARES. We barely look at the university the candidate has attended. And when we do look at it, it is when we are confirming if they have attended the school or not(background check).

It doesn't matter if it says HES, Harvard College or Piggley Wiggely U. A degree is a degree. People will always split hairs of anyone's accomplishments. Even the students who beat thousands of others who's done well in high school gets accused of "sliding in" because their families affiliation with the University.

I plan on going to Harvard Extension for my certificate and eventually my second masters. And guess what? I will be a student, a Harvard Student and most of adult who decided to further her education.

No one cares about the name. Take it from the people who actually work in HR and who are sourcing resumes for a living. Take my word. Harvard is Harvard. A degree is a degree.

We want experience and good people. It goes deeper than the resume.

Thomas N said...

Ti the last post by Anonymous:
People do care. Your HR experience is not everyone's. Employers/HR people/managers do care about an Industrial Design degree from RISD or Auburn or an BS in an Engineering discipline form MIT, Stanford, Cal Tech or Carnegie Mellon. Ian has done a service here without being elitist. True enough that not ALL care that much, and also true is that the school is not the only thing to consider. Why do people choose Tylenol instead of store-brand acetaminophen at half the price despite having the same active ingredients? People decide to trust the Tylenol brand more. People don't usually read the reviews to find out if there is a basis for this choice. However, people are aware of the work and dedication needed to get into one of these schools and complete a course of study. You talk like you live in the real world, but to deny the effect of the (mostly earned) reputation (i.e. brand value) of these institutions is to deny the behavior and inclinations of most of the people in our society.

Nice work on the merits of

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous: You are patently wrong. I work as a Special Assistant to the President at a university in New York. I serve on several committees for recruiting, hiring, vetting candidates to fill diverse positions, from academic to administrative to corporate/HR to legal to facilitative, on campus. We most certainly look at where the candidate received his or her academic degrees as well as previous professional experience. In fact, for some positions for which we receive a surplus of applicants, we are quick to disqualify those who do not meet a benchmark for education, such as holding degrees from an Ivy League or top ten school. We prefer to fill our vacancies with the best possible candidates, and educational background is one important way we determine this. It may sound elitist, exclusive, snobbish even, but that's the way it is. Sadly, we would not consider a degree from Harvard Extension School to have as much cache or import as a degree from Harvard proper. Again, just the way it is. We know what an Harvard Extension School Degree is...and what it isn't. So while your company may not give weight to educational background in its hiring practices, I must respectfully disagree that this is the case at every place of work or every institution.

Anonymous said...

The both of you are completely wrong, and myself and my colleagues are cracking up at this.

None of your failed points holds weight against the reality that you can graduate from any University and get a job.

Case in point---on any job description does it say "Must have a degree from X University?" Nope. It doesn't. Nor can you disqualify anyone for going to, oh let's say, HES.

"We are quick to disqualify those who do not meet a benchmark for education." We are talking GPA and NOT the University's name. *Face palm* And if you are admitting that you have disqualified people simple because of the "name" of the University....oh have some lawsuits ahead if someone blows the whistle.

It is cute that you tried to validate your own biases and form them into facts--but you have miserably failed. Your reality is merely your own biases, which is fine. But the truth is that NO...ONE...CARES......

Sorry guys.

Case dismissed. :)

Anonymous said...

While I understand your reasoning, I disagree that Harvard Extension students should receive the same benefits and access as a regular admitted Harvard College student.

There is a reason why you chose to go in through Harvard Extension and not regular admission... because you can't compete. What is the point of a student who worked hard and performed well get the same treatment and benefits as someone who didn't??

There's a reason why Harvard is Harvard, it is HARD to get in and they only accept the best. If they let everybody in the Extension programs use everything and anything, nobody would ever try or dream to get into Harvard anymore and Harvard simply would no longer be Harvard.

So if you're complaining that being a Harvard Extension student doesn't get you the same thing, why don't you go and apply through the normal route if you think you're so entitled to it?

Dany said...

Hi Ian,
I am prospective ALM student and just found your amazing blog. Like you, I am more interested in the possibility of studying under Harvard faculty and completing a thesis. I already have a MA, but unfortunately chose the general exams over the thesis so I am thirsty for this research/thesis experience. My dilemma--and I must say that my entire existence recently has been consumed by trying to decide on HES or a EdD at my undergrad institution--is that my research interests are in a field not offered by HES, so the closest concentration for me would be Anthro/Archeology. My question, and maybe you can offer some insight, is would it even be possible to complete a thesis as an Anthro concentrator in a field loosely connected to Anthro (say Linguistic Anthropology?) How would this work if I want to "branch out" a bit to fit my specific interests? Would I have the option to work under the tutelage of a linguistics thesis director while still incorporating Anthro into my work, even though linguistics is not an HES concentration?

I Lamont said...

Hi Danny,

HES will (or used to) make an effort to match ALM students with the appropriate faculty member in Harvard FAS or the other schools, but there is no guarantee that they would be able to make the match ... in which case you would have to settle for someone else, perhaps even outside of the narrow specialty you are interested in (for instance, an Anthropologist as opposed to a linguistic anthropologist). On the other hand, the school is very flexible when it comes to research topics, both for the thesis as well as in other classes.

One thing to note as well: An ALM will not carry the same weight as a doctorate, but can be a stepping stone to advanced study elsewhere (it happens all the time for driven ALM researchers).

Good luck


Harry said...

Hi Ian,

I recently passed three of the gateway courses with A's for Harvard extension finance graduate program. I was told by the admissions advisor that they have all the documents they needed and my application is submitted. I am quite anxious of the decision and wanted to know that being I passed all the prerequisites should I be confident that I will be admitted into the program? Thank you for your help.

Harry said...

Hi Ian,

I recently passed three of the gateway courses with A's for Harvard extension finance graduate program. I was told by the admissions advisor that they have all the documents they needed and my application is submitted. I am quite anxious of the decision and wanted to know that being I passed all the prerequisites should I be confident that I will be admitted into the program? Thank you for your help.

Unknown said...

Hi Ian,

Thank you for the wonderful blogs. I am planning to apply for joint programme degree and master at Harvard Extension. I am able to move to Boston and focus on this 100% of my time. What is the shortest amount of time needed to complete ALM?

Appreciate your help :)

Anna Rosegrad said...

In the decade + since this blog post was written, remote learning and remote working have continued to increase. Being online doesn't make studies "continuing" versus "actual." They meet the needs of an ever-changing, modern world. Harvard is providing learning opportunities outside of their campus, a win-win for them and students around the world. On campus learning definitely is ideal and has advantages, but remote learning, especially nowadays with Zoom and WebEx, bridge the divide more and more. I work remotely with a team across the country and I thrive at work (from home.) I also received a liberal arts degree from DePaul University in Chicago with a similar framework of being geared toward adult learners who work full time. My schoolwork was in a classroom since online study didn't really exist then. (I graduated in 2001.)

As someone with an HR background and resume writing and consulting service, a Harvard education on a resume will always go far. If you are truly bothered by any affiliation to online study or the extension name, I would suggest you enroll in one of their traditional schools. For me- I am considering applying to the extension masters program. It's a blessing it would be made available to me while I am living and working in Chicago and managing the high school and college lives of my 2 kids. It's a changing world. I don't see how I could ever earn a masters degree at this point in my life ----from anywhere---- with classroom-only instruction. Would be impossible for me.

I like the point of your blog stating that you have access to top notch academics and professionals in your field of study. Excellent. This is what I seek out in my daily lifelong learning pursuits. Would expect nothing less from Harvard.

Thank you for your blog!