A sad day for the Harvard Extension School

Dean Shinagel has just served notice that the Extension School will no longer try to build its core competencies based around live instruction and interaction with real Harvard faculty. Rather, more convenient, scalable,  and profitable “distance education” is the future of the Extension School, and the next Extension School dean will be charged with “leading Harvard’s efforts in online learning, distance education, and the productive use of technology in pedagogical innovation, as well as shape our academic curriculum for the future, a positive move for the continuing success of Harvard Extension.” The note doesn’t even mention traditional in-class education, which for more than 100 years has given a high-fidelity, interactive educational experience featuring exceptional Harvard faculty to hundreds of thousands of students.

A future based on online education is not necessarily a “positive move,” nor is there any proof that the Extension School’s academic programs will be “strengthened.” Indeed, Shinagel has in the past acknowledged many serious limitations of distance education. I have extensively discussed this in my review of his book “The Gates Unbarred.”

I’m not the only critic. Professor Michael Sandel, Professor Harry Lewis, and the Extension School’s own technology director Henry Leitner have all expressed reservations with current online education systems (Sandel: “I don’t believe that it’s possible fully to replicate the in-person classroom experience using new technology”), although Lewis and Leitner insist that technology will at some point in the future solve the limitations of in-class instruction.

Tellingly, not one of these professors has publicly advocated for Harvard College students or graduate students at Harvard’s professional take online classes for credit. Rather, the Extension School’s students serve as guinea pigs for Shinagel’s grand educational experiments, and are even encouraged to take a majority of their degree credit online, despite the limitations reported by faculty, students, and Shinagel himself. If online education is not good enough for the rest of Harvard, why is it being forced on the Extension School?

Complaints from students should be setting off alarm bells at FAS. I have cited some examples in earlier blog posts, but I also spotted this on the ExtensionStudent.com message board:

… Most of my distance classes were recorded lectures of College classes from the current semester. I had problems in both of my prerecorded classes that were related to the fact they were prerecorded and the professors were not involved. In one class, I had an outstanding TF and she made a huge difference; in the other things went badly and students complained. The professor was not accessible and this was not explained prior to the start of the class. It might not have mattered if the TF was great, but he wasn’t. …

I had a horrible time trying to fill general requirements when I was physically there. A happy mistake changed my final three classes from requirements to electives, but if it had not, I would not have graduated this past spring. I needed in-person only classes and it was slim pickings.

These problems — inaccessible faculty, poor or nonexistent feedback, and limited in-person class options — will only get worse as a new dean charged with prioritizing online education.

Update: More evidence of problems with distance education at Harvard


7 thoughts on “A sad day for the Harvard Extension School

  1. I find it ironic that you harp on the “traditional in-class education” of Harvard Extension, which is a non-traditional institution. While it seems you believe online education is inferior to the traditional on-campus classroom, your argument rests on the premise that online education does not deliver the same experience as an in-class experience, and it is because of this limitation Harvard College and Harvard GSAS do not advocate online classes for credit; online classes are simply not good enough.
    I think if you accept the premise that education can only be good if it delivers a traditional in-class experience that your argument holds fast. But I think your specific argument that the lack of advocacy of these classes for HC and Harvard graduate students demonstrates the inferiority of online education is disingenuous. You have chosen to ignore the issue of perception and prestige, and I believe these two issues are the most salient to this discussion. You face an insurmountable obstacle of holding on-line education to the “standards” of the traditional in-class experience. You have not addressed whether on-line education can imitate the traditional experience, how would you define the parameters? And in the case you do come up with a universal consensus that would prove the on-line experience is equivalent with the in-class experience, this does not address the perception that on-line education is by definition inferior because it fails to satisfy the notion of prestige.
    I think your argument at heart deals with perception and prestige; and ultimately is an exercise in elitism. The argument you present against online education can be exchanged for an argument against Harvard Extension vis a vis Harvard College. Night classes, non-Harvard instructors and less rigorous admissions could be used to forward the argument that the Harvard Extension education is simply not good enough relative to Harvard College because it fails to deliver the in-class experience of Harvard College.
    I also have a hard time defining what would be the definitive traditional in-class experience that would satisfy you. Is the HC student who sits at the front of class and answers every question and attends every section somehow a recipient of a better traditional in-class experience than the HC student who sits in the back, never raises his hand, and sporadically attends section? Perhaps you think I am simply splitting hairs, but I believe this is simply the same argument put to its logical extreme. The same argument can be made between Harvard and Brown or Harvard and a state university, which is why I believe you are forwarding an inherently elitist critique of Harvard Extension’s online education.
    It also seems that you ignoring the potential diversity of views of Harvard Extension degree candidates, I don’t know the make-up of Harvard Extension’s alumni. I am an ALB candidate, I have taken class on campus, but the majority of my credits have been done online (I live in Japan because of work); which I started from scratch without any transfer credit. I am currently in the midst of a course overload. I think you have made the assumption that a person like me wants a traditional in-class experience. I come from a background where going to an elite Ivy is a foregone conclusion; to not graduate from an elite Ivy is a humiliating admission. But I never really agreed with the homogenization and standardization of intellect that traditional education perpetuates. Even New York’s elite institutions of primary education this was the case. I didn’t like the rules of the game; I didn’t want to play the game. Maybe you would regard me a bit of an anarchist or at least anti-establishment, I don’t know. But, it was my experience that a traditional in-class experience is worth little to me beyond the benefit it may have on the perceptions of prestige in other people. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I am smart, but obviously other people need a piece of paper to tell them I am smart.
    Another factor is that an institution like Harvard Extension is the only place I know of that combines rigor with flexibility, I could not pursue an education otherwise. And my pursuance of an education is a pragmatic acknowledgement on my part that I cannot overcome the rules of the game that is society.

  2. Look no further than Ian Lamont for a definitive example for why Extension students are an inferior bunch compared to those of the College. For only the Extension would produce a graduate who leveraged their Harvard affiliation (MIT MBA anyone?) only to return as one if its biggest trollers.

  3. @Acquaintance: Each one of your statements is false. Nowhere have I given a “definitive example for why Extension students are an inferior bunch compared to those of the College.” If you want to debate online education or the Extension School’s policies, please refrain from personal attacks and stick to the facts, please.

  4. IMO, Distance Ed is a joke. I get disgusted when I hear someone say something regarding their “BA from Univ. Phoenix”… I mean isnt the point of college to get out into a classroom and apply oneself? Sitting at your computer listening to a recording while eating cheetos is certainly reserved for folks who were rejected from every other collegiate attempt (or too lazy to try)… So coming from a current Harvard college undergrad, the guys (the truly serious degree seeking students)right here at the extension bust as much ass as the rest of us. Also, their first night at the club might me a little daunting, but after a few drinks we are all harvard men and women. To gain access into an undergrad degree at the EX, a student has to pass expo 25 with a B (a monster of a class for any seasoned student) as well as an enterence exam (fail that the first time, things get pretty tricky) and two honors level classes of their choice also with a B or better just to earn the right to apply to a degree program. Pretty close to on par with the other undergrads on campus. Harvard wants to see two things, 1st a gifted student with above average analytical abailit 2nd creativity, in the sense that one can think outside the box. We graduate as leaders, thinkers, and problem solvers. Harvard men and women have made the lives of those “phoenix grads” easier and more enriched for many generations now. Only difference after four long years of study at harvard or the EX is where you sit at commencment. No matter what, do date… we all earned the right to graduate from the finest institution in the world. I love harvard, and I love you true crimson blooded EX guys right next door. So as we say inside these walls, if you dont go, then you dont know…. So SHUT UP!

    • “Sitting at the computer with the Cheetos” is the wave of the future. Brick and mortar, even for the elite institutions, is no longer enough for society’s demands. IMO, I can now see a day (although still some distance in the future) where typical college campuses will either house servers, or just be monuments of days past.

      I must admit, that direct interaction with other students is beneficial, and has been for many years. Then again, as the world continues to change, it seems most interaction is done in front of a computer screen. I think about the increasing rate at which people are working from home, via internet.

      I also understand the “pay your dues” mentality the traditional students, especially the older alumni, may feel, as they are beginning to see things evolve even at Harvard. To them, I would ask, “Doesn’t everything evolve, with the goal of making things faster, easier, more accessible?’ (Notice I left out the word, “better.”)

      I don’t know much about the U of Phoenix, but I generally agree that there are “schools” out there with degree programs that should be scrutinized, to the least. Despite this, the pretender/predatory organizations will likely be pushed out as legit, accredited colleges continue to increase their online programs.

      For even Harvard, it is a case of come on board, or be left behind, IMO.

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