Saturday, October 10, 2009

More distance education commentary from Harry Lewis, ClueHQ, and yours truly

Spotted in the latest edition of the Harvard University Extension School Alumni Bulletin: An interview with Harry Lewis, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science. When asked "What value do you see in distance education," Lewis replies:
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.

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.

Ian Lamont
ALM '08
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.

(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.)


  1. I recently discussed online teaching with a friend who "attends" one of the largest online schools in the U.S. When she described a topic discussed and written about as part of her bachelor's degree program (business) , I was surprised by what seemed to be more of an exercise than a serious subject of study-The students were asked to write 1500 words about improving their time management skills. Is that required at Harvard? Think not.

  2. Ian,

    If you are extremely unsatisfied with the HES program from the start, then why did you still continue your distance education at this institution? How come you did not take risk and go to the best university that cater to your educational needs? Keep in mind that ALM-IT is NOT a substitute for MSCS or MSEE.

    Take note that a lot of gifted students did not even went to Ivy League schools. The founder of your personal iMac is one of them. Some chose to stay in their respective state or country even if they were accepted by these top schools due to financial or personal reasons.

    In fact, you don't need to attend a single live class in a distance education program just to merely interact with your professors or mediocre classmates, especially if you are living in North or South Pole and considered as genius. Some students interact with their professors because they simply do not comprehend even the basic concepts. In the technology world, a 3.96 GPA in ALM is NOT comparable to a 3.96 in MSEE or MSCS. The latter is way more challenging than the former.

    Obviously, you are not a visionary. So, stop whining about Harvard and all the great technologies that you are using because of guys like us in Silicon Valley found it for you.

    Thus, if you want to become a young billionaire, then you should have considered engineering or computer science in your undergraduate studies. However, it is too late for a follower like you.

    The Barn, Ph.D. EECS

  3. The Barn:

    I think you misunderstood a few things about my Extension School experience. Please note the following:

    1) All classes I took at the Extension School were in person. I sampled one online class after I graduated (Michael Sandel's "Justice") but it was not for credit.

    2) I did not take part in the ALM in IT program. I was in the Liberal Arts ALM (concentration in history).

    3) I am not continuing my studies at the Extension School. I finished my thesis and last class two years ago and graduated in 2008.

    4) I recognize that a lot of gifted students go to non-Ivy League schools. Take a look at the list of this year's Rhodes Scholars, which includes many incredible young people from all kinds of colleges.

    Also, you seem to have experience in the ALM in IT program -- at least enough to make a comparison with other engineering degrees. In your opinion, how could the ALM in IT requirements be improved to make the degree comparable with a typical CS and electrical engineering masters programs?


  4. Readers: "The Barn" decided to respond to my earlier question with an insult left elsewhere on this blog. It's unfortunate, not only because this behavior discredits his arguments, but also because I had hoped for an honest, respectful debate and exchange of ideas about distance education at the Extension School.

    Comments are now moderated.

  5. Ian,

    Based on your argument that Harvard Extension School allowed distance education students to earn 90% of their class credit watching videos, and the remaining 10% on-campus is a watered-down academic experience?

    I strongly disagree with your despicable, non-sensical statement. In fact, you could complete the whole distance education program of your choice, even without attending a single on-campus class if you completely comprehend all the complexities of your subjects. Why do you need to restrict the key principle of distance education itself?

    If Stephen Hawking, for example, wants to take your course(ALM with concentration in history) due to boredom, and can not 100% attend a live class at Harvard Extenion School because of his distant location and health condition, but he can only attend 10% on-campus every summer, would you still keep on whining about the policy of HES? That's completely absurd.

    Please note that a lot of global nobel laureates, scientists, researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, etc. have taken courses in various distance education institutions to enhance their quest for knowledge, and not merely attach these prestigious distance education institutions in their resume like you. Most of them have already completed their advanced degrees with insitutions like Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Yale, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Princeton, etc.

    In addition, gifted young students around the world are taking these distance education programs because they can not afford the cost of full-time or part-time education in the US or UK. Most of these gifted students were already accepted by the best universities in the world. Unfortunately, most scholarships and grants are only given to the citizens of the country where the prestigious university is located. Unfortunately, their respective developing countries do not have substantial financial support for their international education. Thus, distance education is somehow assist them to attain their goals.

    In my personal educational experience, I only attended the final exams of most of my courses in a prestigious non-traditional education and still managed to have the best possible university grade. My time was utilized in a more hands-on research work that complemented these challenging courses. Interaction was not solely limited to my university professors or classmates. A network of global industry experts were my pragmatic foundation in learning the key concepts of my advanced courses. The same approach can be used if you are enrolled in any distance education institution.

    I think you are undeniably angry at HES due to your failed notion that Harvard will somehow enhance your mediocre career and connect you with a better paying career like most Harvard Alumni.

    As I mentioned before, you do not need Ivy League education to become successful in this planet. Remember the founder of your personal iMac that you are using? Did he attend Harvard or other prestigious educational institution? Certainly not. However, he is the most admired entrepreneur. One of the best visionaries of recent history.

    Why not aim for a Nobel Prize in Literature or Pulitzer Prize Award instead? Or write a best-selling novel of all time. Maybe start your own company like Mark Zuckerberg? Your legacy will essentially last longer than your immature whining about the policy of HES.

    Unfortunately, it's too late for you to become a billionaire. In fact, you are in the wrong industry to begin with. In addition, you need a entrepreneurial vision to achieve this financial success.

    The Barn, Ph.D. EECS

  6. The Barn:

    I don't mind debating people who disagree with my views about distance education or anything else, but personal attacks are unacceptable. If you want to continue this discussion on my blog you're going to have to refrain from insulting me or anyone else. Any additional comments that contain personal attacks will not be published.

    After reading your latest argument, I have one question: Do you think meaningful exchange and interaction with faculty and other students are a crucial element of higher education, or are they totally unnecessary?

    Ian Lamont

  7. Ian,
    Thanks for your posts. It's always good to have opposing views.
    One flaw I see in your argument is the fact that you are think that IT and History have to be treated the same. I can't say too much about history, but even from my limited experience with disciplines such as history I can tell you that professor-student and student-student interaction is crucial for success. IT on other hand is very precise(you either know it or not).
    Interaction professor-student and student-student are important but doesn't have to be synchronous. As the IT professional 90% of my communication is asynchronous and its very common in IT world.

  8. Anonymous: I agree that there are differences in the way certain subjects are taught and knowledge is shared.

    But I disagree with your statement that IT education doesn't have to be synchronous. I believe core concepts, discussions and information-sharing on these topics *do* take place in the classroom.

    My opinion is not just based on the existence of IT and CS departments at universities all over the world, but also in my own experience. From 2000-2002 I studied Web programming at Boston College at night. The in-class discussions and opportunities to raise your hand to ask questions or take part in a fast-moving debate were hugely important to the learning experience. Even if the faculty were inclined to make themselves available to students online, the amount of time required to answer all questions would have been limited (most cannot type as fast as they can speak) and some students would not be able to participate, even as observers -- the conversations would have been shut off in one-on-one email threads, and/or some students simply wouldn't bother reading through the discussion forum threads.

    In my opinion, face time is crucial element to the learning process and sharing information outside of the classroom, no matter if it's historical research or a new IT product. As I said to the author of ClueHQ, "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." Someday people will no longer be tied to office buildings and physical classrooms, but not before communications technologies match or surpass the f2f experience.

    Ian Lamont

  9. Ian,
    I have a one question for you. Why? Why are you constantly trying to convince the world that online education sucks. You may say that you never said that, but come on, it's implied. When I my roommate tries to share his excitement about his new Blackberry and I shoot him down with the features of my Iphone that's exactly what I'm doing...telling him that his Blackberry sucks... You are constantly posting all this "crap"(apologize for that but I simply couldn't find a better word) about how bad the online education is and making fun of it.
    You are trying to be "nice" by pointing out positive aspects here and there but your overall message "if you are working on you degree via online university you suck"
    I don't understand this, I simply don't. Let me ask you again why? Is it because you can't find a job or lost your job to someone who is "unqualified with online degree"? I mean, there should be a reason for all this anti-online attitude. Let me give you a simple example: I am very anti illegal immigration. I can give you a thousand of completely legit reasons why I think that illegal immigration is bad. But if you ask me why? long enough you will learn that the root cause of my "anti" attitude is the fact I am an international student who wants to stay in this country. I wanted to do everything right: learned English, earned 2 degrees(both with honors) from the US university and paid my taxes. Now in 5 months I will have to leave this country...because I did everything right. On other hand there are a bunch of "cheaters" who entered this country illegally and they will be given the right to stay. Sorry for a long example, but hopefully it helps to illustrate my point. So let me ask you again: Why? What's the root cause of it?

  10. Anonymous "why" commenter:

    I started writing about this topic after I asked why the Extension School was offering online education as an alternative to traditional in-class instruction, despite a growing number of complaints about it.

    You're not the first person to incorrectly assume that I have low opinions of distance education students. To the contrary: Anyone who is able to complete one of the Extension School's degree programs by taking mostly online classes actually deserves a great deal of respect. I think they have to work much harder to make connections with their professors and other students, which is something we take for granted in traditional classrooms. And, I have repeatedly pointed to the fact that some HES distance ed students have bested their Harvard College counterparts, grade-wise.

    But this does not change my opinion of the distance education platform and policies currently favored by the Extension School. My reasoning is described extensively in the original blog post and elsewhere, and if you'd like to debate specific points I bring up I'd be glad to oblige.

    Ian Lamont

  11. You can register for distance courses (many of which are by tenured harvard faculty--unlike lecture classes--and then attend in person. Problem solved.


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