Thursday, September 24, 2009

"The Gates Unbarred" review, part II: Shinagel's views of distance education

(See part I of the review here) (Update: Richard at ClueHQ has responded in a blog post. The link to the post and my response to him is at the bottom of this entry) I've written extensively about distance education on my blogs, and have been critical of the Extension School's portrayal of distance education courses as being an acceptable substitute for in-class instruction. The missing elements? Dialogue with professors and students. The chance to raise your hand and get an instant reply or steer the discussion in a new way, and everyone in the class being aware of the debates. The idea that email, prerecorded lectures, and asynchronous message board exchanges can completely replace being in a room with your professor and classmates is ridiculous, yet that's exactly what the Extension School is promoting -- particularly for the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT degrees, both of which can be earned with upwards of 90% distance education credit (i.e., as little as a single semester or two seven-week summer sessions on campus).

I am not slighting the efforts of distance education students, some of whom put more efforts into their studies than their in-class counterparts. But I feel very strongly that the Extension School has failed to make a case that the current toolset and methodology can replace in-class instruction. I think that the Harvard Extension School's liberal credit policies for distance education are a mistake, and should be reevaluated as soon as possible.

That's my take, at least. But what about the perspectives of the Extension School administration? The Gates Unbarred presented a special opportunity for understanding the DCE administration's official views of distance education. And after reading what Dean Shinagel had to say about computer-based distance education, not all of my takeaways were negative. Two things were apparent:

First, it is clear from reading Shinagel’s account that The Extension School is a pioneer in this arena, and both he and several senior Harvard faculty deserve recognition for their efforts.

Second, even though the Extension School has failed to make a case that Web-based instruction is a suitable replacement for traditional face-to-face learning, at least a few people in the Extension School administration -- most notably Henry Leitner, Harvard's associate dean of information technology and CTO for the Division of Continuing Education -- are aware of some of the problems, are willing to experiment in an effort to improve the pedagogy, and, most importantly, are asking the right questions about how Web-based instruction might be improved.

Shinagel does not dwell on the limitations in The Gates Unbarred. He obviously sees the massive expansion of distance education as a remarkable success. Much of chapter XIII, "Extension Courses Go Online," is devoted to the history of computer-based distance education at the Extension School, which dates back some 25 years. The stories are very interesting, starting with the first "Teleteaching" experiments (using PCs with special software, telephones, and modems) in the mid-1980s. Leitner, who was then a senior computer science lecturer at Harvard, actually conducted a five-week class on artificial intelligence with students at Beijing Normal University in 1987, which was surely one of the first such international efforts involving U.S. and Chinese universities. By the late 1990s, the Extension School was teaching a number of math and computer science classes based on Mathematica software running on Apple computers. However, in 1998 the school decided to limit itself to CS classes on this platform "because of the problems involved supporting distance students’ need to deal with software installation," Shinagel writes.

Internet-based education started to get a boost at this time, but was hobbled by immature multimedia technologies and a lack of tools for Web-based learning. Remember, the Web was still in its infancy in the late 1990s. Leitner's solution? Build a dedicated Extension School platform for Web education. He enlisted one of his students, Antonio Aranda Eggermont, to lead the effort, and the result was "a system that would enable the Extension School to expand the number of courses available online," Shinagel writes. In the 1999-2000 school year, the dean’s annual report included a separate section on distance education, evidence of its growth and increasing stature.

As distance education expanded, many eyes were focused on the Extension School's experiments. Shinagel mentions reports that were supported by various University offices (including the Harvard Provost’s Office) that either evaluated the effectiveness of Harvard’s distance education efforts and/or recommended strategies for future expansion. It would have been helpful if the Extension School or the other participating departments posted them on the Web, but in the absence of the full reports, I only have Shinagel’s summaries and interpretation to go on. He said:
  • "The initial findings and recommendations of the provost's grant study were on the whole encouraging and pedagogically useful." (185)
  • "The findings illustrated strong support by faculty and their distance students and recommended a strategy of continued growth, especially focus on ‘hybrid courses,' whereby students had the option of attending class and reviewing the lecturers over the Internet." (184)
  • "Other factors that emerged from the study supporting program expansion included offering more introductory-level courses and more technical courses for prospective distance students competent with computers." (184)
  • "The motivation of students to enroll in a Harvard Extension School distance course, was predictably, the Harvard University image and reputation, which underscored the need for the program to live up to expectations of academic quality associated with the Harvard brand." (184-185)
But other sections hint at negative views and even resistance to Harvard's aggressive push into distance education:
  • "... Teaching and learning in distance courses clearly were perceived as different, especially as faculty and students alike were experimenting on how best to create a sense of community in class and online with electronic communications. Distance students needed more supportive attention, particularly at the beginning, to ensure a good learning experience. Faculty also needed more support as they attempted innovations in their teaching styles when dealing with in-class and online students simultaneously. Teaching assistants required special training and support for their duties with websites, discussion groups, and bulletin boards because students demonstrated that they had different learning styles as they interacted with technologies associated with distance courses." (185)
  • "Since distance courses inevitably involved more work for faculty, it was necessary to develop a system of incentives to induce them to put their courses online." (184)
  • "... The challenge was to attract more of Harvard's senior faculty to participate in the distance program. ... Henry Leitner was feeling particularly frustrated by this situation, as the newly created Master of Liberal Arts in Information Technology Program was experiencing a dearth of involvement by his busy Harvard colleagues." (186)
Leitner and others came up with an interesting idea to address this last issue. Their solution: offer videotaped daytime classes as online-only courses for HES students. An experiment was proposed, using a Harvard College networking class taught by H.T. Kung and approved by Dean Harry Lewis of Harvard College and Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Venkatesh Narayanamurti (later the dean of SEAS).

Shinagel deemed the experiment a success, noting that the 13 HES students who completed the course (out of 18 who registered) had overall scores that were comparable to those of the more than 100 Harvard College students who took the same class during the day. He said that the experiment showed "faculty could teach simultaneously an in-class and online audience without cumbersome technology interfering in the teaching and learning processes."

But after reading this, I have to ask: If distance education technology is viewed as so cumbersome to instructors, then how does that affect the teaching and learning processes for the more than 70% of distance courses at the Extension School that are not based on the rebroadcast Harvard College classes?

There was also the issue of student involvement. In the experiment with Professor Kung’s class, any one of the Harvard College students could raise his or her hand to ask a question, or participate in spur-of-the-moment classroom discussions. What was the experience of the 13 HES students? Was there any opportunity to interact with the professor? If so, was the nature of that interaction emails or telephone calls that might only be experienced by a single student, or threaded discussions that involved the professor, TAs, and other members of the class, including the College students?

It’s great that the HES students who stuck with the class were able to prove themselves academically, but I am very concerned that they and other distance education students have been given a watered-down educational experience in terms of interaction with faculty and fellow students.

Indeed, on page 189, Shinagel mentions a separate research effort involving Leitner that addressed "how best to deal with the spontaneous ideas and contributions of distance students." So this issue was definitely on their radar screens. Leitner’s report elaborated, "one of the primary complaints about slides that were synchronized to streaming video and audio was the distance student’s inability to interrupt and ask questions ... Some students felt frustrated by the noninteractive nature of the presentation." The technological solution that was proposed in the report -- a "help" button and submission form tied to a data-mining application that helps identify potential "sources of miscomprehension" for teachers to review later -- hardly seems like an effective way to fix the noninteractive nature of the presentations, and relieve the students’ frustrations at not being able to raise their hands and get an immediate answer.

Nevertheless, the school pushed ahead with the expansion of distance education, nearly tripling the number of classes from 36 in the 2002-2003 school year to 100 just four years later. The implementation of formal credit policies around distance education took a few years to catch up. Shinagel does not address these policies, and in my opinion, it's not surprising why: Asynchronous online education has not been established as a replacement for in-class instruction, yet Extension School policies enable students in several disciplines (including the Extension School's main undergraduate program) to earn upwards of 90% of course credit over an Internet connection, with only a token presence on campus for the rest of the time. This is very questionable. Indeed, many people at Harvard have warned against regarding online communications as a replacement for classroom-based academic exchange:
"You can't replicate an entire Harvard education ... I'm not sure you'd want to."
-- Henry Leitner, Director of Academic Computing at Harvard's Division of Continuing Education (1999)
"No one should believe that electronic communication can be--or should be--a substitute for direct human contact. But the electronic process has some features that do permit an actual extension of the scope, continuity, and even the quality of certain forms of interaction, even though communication over the network lacks other absolutely essential aspects of 'real' conversations in the presence of 'real' people."
-- Neil L. Rudenstine, Pointing Our Thoughts. Harvard University Press (2001) from the text of a 1996 speech

These views are more than a decade old, but one doesn't have to look far to find more recent assessments that question Internet-based instruction, including Harvard faculty who are themselves active users of Internet and mobile technologies. Michael Sandel, who manages to have rich dialogues and debates with hundreds of Harvard College students taking his "Justice" class, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that "I don't believe that it's possible fully to replicate the in-person classroom experience using new technology", such as video and online resources. Another Chronicle article citing recent research into online education noted that nearly half of instructors who had taught online classes in the past felt that "learning outcomes" were inferior or somewhat inferior to face-to-face instruction, compared to 38% who felt that outcomes were the same (see report).

Another issue to consider: Why has no other school at Harvard embraced Internet education? It is no longer a futuristic concept -- in the past ten years, scores of Harvard faculty and hundreds of teaching assistants have taken part in the Extension School's online courses. They could easily be cross-pollination agents with Harvard's other schools, bringing enthusiasm, experience, and technology tools to their departments and colleagues. Yet aside from a few experiments (such as the Extension School's virtual reality classes, taught by faculty associated with the Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society) I am not aware of any other Harvard academic unit embracing Internet education, offering class credit for online courses, let alone granting degrees with only a bare minimum of time spent on campus. If the other schools don't see online education as an acceptable learning alternative or credit substitute for their students for even a single class, why is it OK for HES degree candidates?

At the end of The Gates Unbarred chapter on the history of distance education at the Extension School, Shinagel claims that HES "established a reputation for leadership, innovation and academic excellence in distance education." (197) I concur with the first two descriptions, and admire those distance students who have proved themselves capable of academic excellence. However, I strongly disagree with the notion that online forms asynchronous learning, teaching, and communication styles can serve as a substitute for in-class instruction -- at least with the current technology toolset, and to the degree that the Extension School now allows. That may change in the next five or ten years, but until it does, the Extension School should rethink its online credit policies.

(Richard at ClueHQ has responded to my views on distance education at Harvard in a blog post, "Distance Education and the Harvard Experience: A Response to Critics". At the bottom of his post, I have responded.)

Update: Since writing this review of The Gates Unbarred, I have taken an online math class for credit (not at the Extension School, but at a very well-regarded public university), and have this to say about the online education experience:

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