Distance education is the future. It's the way Harvard can bring its incomparable intellectual resources to the rest of the world that cannot come to Cambridge. The Internet has created the opportunity to end the tyranny of distance and physical buildings over the storage and communication of ideas.I'm with Professor Lewis up to this point. Technology does have the potential to bridge distance and physical boundaries. But then he says:
We don't know precisely how best to do that yet, but everything happening in distance education at Harvard is a step toward realizing that dream.After reading this, I have a few questions for Prof. Lewis and Dean Michael Shinagel: If Harvard doesn't know the "best" way to do distance education, then why is Harvard passing off this apparently inferior educational platform as a substitute for in-class instruction to Extension School students? Why are students in two of the Extension School's most popular degree programs -- the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT -- allowed to earn 90% of their class credit watching videos and using message boards and email, with only minimal interaction with faculty and other students, and only a token presence on campus for the remaining 10% of class credits? Why aren't Harvard College or any of Harvard's other professional schools using asynchronous Web-based classes, and granting credit to students who try it?
I've written about this topic in the past, and have even tried a Web-based class myself, although not for course credit. I have concluded that the current technologies used for distance education are inferior to in-class instruction, and that Harvard is jumping the gun by allowing students to earn large amount of credit with what should be considered an experimental, limited platform for education.
Not everyone agrees with me. My last essay on the topic -- an analysis of Dean Shinagel's account of distance education in his book The Gates Unbarred: A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910-2009 -- generated a long response from a proponent of distance education, who himself was able to earn 88% of his undergraduate Extension School credit remotely. You can read the ClueHQ analysis from Richard here. His post is well-written, and brings up some good arguments -- such as the distance education degrees offered by Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon -- but he nevertheless failed to convince me. I responded with this:
Thanks for taking the time to continue the debate over distance education at Harvard. You bring some interesting examples (particularly live videoconferencing) but my stance remains unchanged: Web-based, asynchronous education is providing a watered-down academic experience that should not be allowed to replace up to 90% of degree credit in various Extension School programs. The Extension School administration is making a mistake by putting convenience ahead of academics. It should scale back its distance credit policies until suitable technological alternatives and pedagogical methods are identified and implemented.I think this debate should be taken up at higher levels, but I suspect the school will never respond to critics like me. This is not only because of the fact that Web-based distance education is supported at the highest levels of the Division of Continuing Education and Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but also because scaling back credit policies would halve enrollment in the Extension School's most popular programs, including the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT and ALM in Management degrees. It could also slow the commendable efforts by people like Prof. Lewis and the Extension School's Henry Leitner at Harvard to find other technologies and methods that are not only adequate substitutes for traditional, in-class instruction, but are actually superior in terms of educating students and providing effective channels for academic discourse, communication, and understanding.
In addition, I was hoping you or some other reader would address my question of why Harvard's other schools have failed to allow any online credit for their respective degree programs. Even though hundreds of faculty from other Harvard schools have taken part in online Extension School classes, they have not shared these modes of education with students at the College or Harvard's professional schools. If sitting in front of a computer screen is an adequate substitute for real, in-class instruction and discussion, then why haven't they pushed for change elsewhere at Harvard, even on an experimental basis?
However, you did cite two other well-known schools (Columbia and Carnegie-Mellon) that have distance education-based degrees. The two examples that you provide are both in technical disciplines, not liberal arts coursework which forms the backbone of the Extension School's ALB degree. Tellingly, neither Columbia nor CMU has incorporated distance education into its other for-credit degrees, despite the fact that the former has operated its distance program for decades and the latter is one of the top engineering/CS schools in the country. As for the Extension School's own ALM in IT program, it has never been established that having students complete 90% of their coursework online, with only limited options for dialogue with their instructors and fellow students, is an effective replacement for in-class instruction. Both you and I work in technology-oriented occupations, and are fully aware that face time is a crucial element of developing new products and getting IT projects off the ground. If bulletin boards, prerecorded video, and email were an acceptable substitute for live interaction, Silicon Valley and the Rte. 128 technology corridor would have become ghost towns years ago -- developers, network engineers and other IT professionals could do most of their work from home.
Two other issues you bring up -- handicaps, and live classes with poor instructors or indifferent students -- are red herrings. Dean Shinagel does not address them in his book, and for that matter, I have never seen them raised by Harvard or the Extension School administration as a reason for establishing or expanding Web-based distance education. Instead, the factors that are mentioned in The Gates Unbarred include:
1) Making classes available to vast number of potential students who don't live near Boston/Cambridge
2) A million-dollar production facility and professional staff to run the programs, and
3) The Harvard name and reputation all over the world.
I believe that many distance education students are seeking the easiest and most convenient way of getting "Harvard" on their resumes. Many of these students would spend 0% of their time on campus if they could, even though it would mean forgoing interaction with faculty, listening to live debates, and performing the simple act of raising your hand and getting feedback or leading the discussion in a new direction -- in other words, the very factors that make Harvard one of the best schools on the planet.
You bring up Cisco's TelePresence system, and describe the positive experience you had "meeting" with colleagues on the other side of the country. I agree that this technology could be an answer to the limitations of Web-based distance education, and allow students and faculty to interact in a way that's similar to a live classroom experience. But, until costs come down dramatically (Cisco's basic units are $80,000, not including networking costs), such technologies will not be a realistic option at the Extension School, much less in people's homes. In the meantime, Harvard must acknowledge the shortcomings of Web-based distance education, and end its liberal credit policies governing online coursework.
(Disclosure: At the time I wrote this post, I was a board member of Immersive Education, which seeks to promote the use of virtual worlds in education.)
Update: Since writing this post, I have taken an online math class for credit, and have this to say about the online education experience:
(Feel free to comment below.)