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.