Creating a special Google Docs resource for educators

When Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes was first introduced more than two years ago, almost immediately I noticed an interesting trend in the traffic logs to the product website. Lots of visitors were coming from schools and school districts all over the country. Then, I started getting huge bulk orders for the books from my two print distributors, CreateSpace and LSI. Emails from some teachers confirmed that their schools had ordered the books as K-12 teacher training for Google Drive for Education. In this post, I am going to discuss the creation of several new products intended to serve teachers, curriculum managers, school administrators, and educational IT professionals who are interested in providing a Google Drive/Google Docs training resource for their schools.

First off, I would like to note that Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes is not only about Google Drive and Google Docs. It covers the other programs in the suite, including Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Drawings, as well as collaboration and other features. It is the top-selling In 30 Minutes guide, and I just released a revised and expanded 2nd edition.

That said, Google Docs for students is the top draw for K-12 educators. Primary school students are not likely to need spreadsheets or presentation software. In many school districts, starting in 3rd or 4th grade, students begin to practice typing and composition. Google Docs provides an excellent platform to practice, and its collaborative nature also allows teachers to check progress and make comments. For teachers who are new to Google Docs and are using the educators’ version of Google Drive, a book that’s like Google Docs for Dummies (but much shorter) provides an excellent starting point.

A request for a special Google Docs resource for educators

My first thought was to create bulk ordering options for educators at a steep discount. That was easy enough to do. But then I got an interesting request from a teacher:

I also want to know if your would be willing to offer a license for people to have access to it at our school. You see, there are about 150 people learning about Google drive. Maybe 30 of them are English speakers. The school might consider getting a license for people to view the .PDF, but individuals probably won’t want to shell out $4.99 since they see it as something that the school is making them do.

This was an interesting thought. How about offering an affordable license that any teacher or staff member could access on their computers, tablets, or Kindle? I put together a simple license, priced it attractively, and let it fly. The teacher recommended it to his school, and then I started getting other sales.

This month, to coincide with the release of the 2nd edition of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes, I updated the license to include two versions: A single-edition license as well as an educational license subscription, which will provide regular updates to the text of the books as well as extra materials such as videos. You can see the descriptions and prices on the dedicated Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes page for education.






Harvard Extension faculty and the Harvard Instructor requirement

So you’re thinking about attending the Harvard Extension School, or you want to know more about the degree programs. A common question that prospective candidates have is whether students are taught by real Harvard faculty. Others are interested in whether Harvard Extension faculty are tenured professors at the University.

The short answer: It depends on the concentration and the classes being taken.

Instructors with appointments at Harvard Widener Library
Harvard Widener Library

Looking at the Harvard Extension Faculty Directory, the first page of results contains numerous associate and assistant professors, lecturers, and preceptors from FAS, the Harvard Medical School, the Harvard School of Public Health, Widener Library, and other units. The page also lists faculty from other area universities (Boston College, Suffolk, Northeastern, UMass, etc). There are many non-academic-affiliated instructors, too, who teach in the Extension School’s professional programs.

Generally speaking, the liberal arts and science classes are more likely to have Harvard faculty, including tenured professors. The Extension School has a “Harvard Instructor” requirement for the liberal arts masters degrees, requiring 7 out of 9 courses to be “a faculty member with a teaching appointment” at Harvard.

Harvard Extension faculty and Harvard Summer School classes

However, the school has different rules for Summer School classes. All Harvard Summer School instructors are regarded as Harvard Instructors, even if they don’t have a teaching appointment. That’s not just for Extension School students taking Summer School classes; a similar set of rules apply to Harvard College students attending the same classes — most on-campus Summer School coursework counts for credit for attending Harvard College students, with some conditions. Online classes offered by the Summer School cannot be taken for credit by Harvard College students, though.

I was a history concentrator in the Extension School’s Master of Liberal Arts program from 2003-2008, taking all of my classes on campus. Here’s the Harvard/non-Harvard faculty breakdown:

  • 2 classes taught by tenured Harvard faculty members
  • Thesis project directed by a tenured Harvard faculty member
  • 1 class taught by a non-tenured Harvard lecturer
  • 2 classes taught by Harvard post-docs/research affiliates
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Boston College
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Northwestern
  • 1 class taught by a visiting professor from Western Michigan University
  • 1 class taught by Museum of Fine Arts research affiliate

The 3 or 4 courses I took during the summer generally had non-Harvard instructors, but counted toward the Harvard Instructor requirement based on the Summer School exception described above. The Northwestern and Western Michigan lecturers had received AB/JD and PhD degrees from Harvard and had visiting scholar affiliations at Harvard, while the late Professor Thomas H. O’Connor of Boston College was considered the leading scholar in his field.

For other liberal arts concentrations, it’s possible to choose classes so most or even all instructors are tenured Harvard faculty or tenure-track professors. I know students who have done this, or even applied for (and received) Special Student status to take GSAS/College classes taught by Harvard faculty.

As for the professional programs (Finance, Digital media arts, etc.) there are no longer any Harvard Instructor requirements. This is not surprising, considering many of the topics being taught have no equivalent in Harvard College or any of the professional schools. Practically speaking, this means it’s possible to receive a degree from Harvard without ever taking a class with Harvard faculty. It’s ridiculous, and reflects very poorly on the Extension School, as I noted in another post several years ago:

… The professional degree programs have failed to fit the model established by the Extension School to offer a Harvard academic experience led by Harvard faculty members to students. It further sets a precedent for launching new professional degree programs that have no connection to the University’s existing areas of study, and opens the door to criticism that Harvard Extension School degrees aren’t “real” degrees because they no longer represent study under Harvard’s top-notch faculty.

I advise students considering these programs to make every effort to take actual classes with real Harvard faculty. For some fields, it’s impossible because there are no Harvard instructors available or willing to teach in these areas. But for others, there may be course offerings from time to time. In the ALM Management program, as of 2020 it is possible to select some courses taught by tenured faculty, including faculty from the Harvard Business School:

V.G. Narayanan is the Thomas D. Casserly, Jr., Professor of Business Administration and has been teaching accounting at Harvard Business School

For online courses, there is an additional dimension to Harvard Extension faculty participation: Whether the classes are “live” with a participating professor, or whether they are prerecorded lectures with no opportunity to interact with faculty. In such classes, online discussion and assignments are handled by non-faculty TAs. Many students don’t know this before they sign up, and are disappointed by the experience, as one student discovered:

… 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. …

In summary: If you are looking for a real Harvard experience, take as many classes on campus with real Harvard instructors as you can.

Harvard Extension School ALM in Management vs. full-time MBA

(Updated) I received an email from a prospective student asking about the Harvard Extension School’s ALM in Management program. He wanted me to compare the ALM in Management vs. a full-time MBA.

In my reply, I noted that I have never taken any ALM in Management classes. My ALM concentration was history. But I have followed the Management program since it was introduced and have a full-time MBA under my belt, and feel qualified to make some comparisons.

Harvard Extension School ALM in Management vs. MBA: Where the programs differ

From my point of view, while the ALM in Management has a price that’s hard to beat, it does not compare with a full-time MBA. Here’s where I think the ALM in Management program comes up short:

  1. There is no cohort experience, vital for building a network that can serve you long after after the program concludes. The Extension School has made some moves to boost the sense of community and establish limited cohorts, a positive step.
  2. Even though many of the classes are similar to those you would find in a business school, the ALM in Management degree is technically not an MBA. It’s a liberal arts degree in management (!). This fact may cause skepticism among some potential employers.
  3. Many instructors are not Harvard faculty, and there is no affiliation with the world-famous Harvard Business School (however, HBS faculty are now apparently allowed to teach HES courses, see below).
  4. While online classes are a lot of work for students, they are not a substitute for in-person learning experiences. Extension School students have complained about some of the deficiencies in the past.
  5. Some recruiters view any part-time business degree with skepticism.
  6. Among recruiters, the reputation of the school has been damaged by HES graduates who have omitted their Extension School background on their resumes. In some cases graduates have innocently followed the Harvard Extension School resume guidelines, but in many cases there have been deliberate attempts to portray themselves as graduates with a Harvard MBA or Harvard College degree.

In other words, it’s a mistake to assume the ALMM is like a Harvard MBA lite. That said, I think there is real value in some of the on-campus classes that expose students to important business concepts. There are takeaways that can be brought back to the workplace, or help students shift their careers in a new direction. For students who cannot enroll in a full-time MBA program, ALM in Management classes are an attractive alternative.

2020 Update: At one time the ALM Management faculty list did not have any faculty with Harvard Business School affiliations, but that has now changed, as the example below demonstrates. It’s a great development, and an opportunity for ALM Management students to study under HBS faculty.

V.G. Narayanan is the Thomas D. Casserly, Jr., Professor of Business Administration and has been teaching accounting at Harvard Business School

See also: Harvard Extension School success stories from the past year


What is a MOOC? And why does it matter?

What is a MOOC? When I posted an article about MOOCs to Hacker News and the /r/truereddit forum on Reddit, I thought many people in technology circles knew the answer — Massive Open Online Course. I was wrong, as evidenced by replies like this:

What is a MOOC? Reddit

For people who follow online education, it’s easy to forget that MOOCs — basically prerecorded video lectures and online components such as discussion boards, surveys, and course materials intended for audiences of thousands of students — are a relatively new phenomenon. Soon, however, they will become mainstream, as more young people are exposed to MOOC coursework and colleges succumb to pressure to reduce costs related to faculty and physical classrooms.

HarvardX controversy prompts “What is a MOOC” post

The article that prompted the “What is a MOOC?” questions is actually very interesting. Titled, “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC“, it covers the reaction of professors who reject the use of exported HarvardX teaching materials for their students in San Jose. They rightly point out that MOOCs are extremely lacking in interactive features. For instance, Harvard’s “Justice” course, taught in person by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel and provided as a MOOC through HarvardX, does not contain any mechanism that allows San Jose students to ask Sandel questions (related: More evidence of problems with distance education at Harvard). His response to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education,” wrote Mr. Sandel. “The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”

But I found the answer on this Hacker News thread to be most interesting, in part because it expresses the concerns of students:

At the risk of setting up false dichotomies, I wonder:
Will a MOOC instructor answer my emails, take a phone call, or meet with me in person?
Will a MOOC instructor help me network with potential employers and internship sponsors?
Will a MOOC instructor be my mentor and help me navigate an increasingly difficult job market?
Will a MOOC instructor connect me to other like-minded students and professors?
Will a MOOC instructor act as an advisor for any interest groups or clubs at my school?
Will a MOOC instructor know who I am?

The answer: “No. That’s why the course is free.”

What do students think about online education?

What do students think about online education?The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great two-part feature, “Did anyone ask the students?” It’s an absolutely relevant question that is missing in almost all discussions of the future of higher education (for evidence of this, look no further than last week’s Harvard’s edX announcement and related coverage, which featured lots of administrators and experts talking, but not a single student.)

Anyway, back to the Chron article. The writer, Jeff Selingo, went out and talked with hundreds of students at all kinds of colleges (SNHU, Georgetown, Arizona State, the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Franklin & Marshall College) and asked them what they thought of the technological revolution that’s blossoming across higher education. He got some surprising answers, particularly concerning the value of online education. Although the students have grown up in an online, mobile world, and have these technologies deeply integrated into their lives, they see huge value in the face-to-face educational experience:

Face-to-face education matters even more now. Because these students see the world through screens (mobile, tablet, and laptop), I expected them to embrace the idea of online education. Just the opposite. They want to engage with a professor and with their classmates, they crave the serendipity of classroom discussions, and they want the discipline of going to class. Even the adult students I met preferred a physical classroom. Online “you’re pretty much paying to teach yourself,” a Valencia student told me. “It’s like text messages. There’s no tone of voice.”

That doesn’t mean these students like everything about traditional higher ed. They’re over the lecture, they like the idea of “flipping the classroom,” and they do seek out online resources to brush up on certain subjects. “A lot of professors are petrified by online classes,” one Georgetown student said. “They really want to improve the classroom experience.”

However, there is some sample bias here. The students Jeff talked with are already talking in-person classes. Talking to online students, some different perspectives come up. I have written extensively about online education at the Harvard Extension School. Some students lament the lack of contact and interaction with Harvard professors and their classmates. But others who put more of an emphasis on convenience, such as this ALM in IT student who didn’t see much value in attending Extension School classes in person:

The [Harvard Extension School] doesn’t offer an internet degree yet, to Kendra Kratkiewicz’s regret. This semester, she’s forced to make the long drive from Billerica to Cambridge as she toils toward her master’s degree. Nothing would please her more than a chance to complete her Harvard education without having to show up at Harvard.

In the rush to celebrate the convenience of sitting in front of a computer at home, Harvard Extension School and some of its students forgot how important face-to-face interaction is.

Shaquille O’Neal’s UoP master’s degree brings out the haters

Shaquille O’Neal received his doctoral degree in education last week. It wasn’t an honorary award — he earned it from Barry University, a private Catholic institution in Florida. It’s an admirable achievement that required lots of hard work, both on campus and off — he took many courses through distance education, but also had presentations and other activities on campus, as in the photo provided by Barry (the other person in the photo is David M. Kopp, Chair of the Organizational Learning and Leadership and Human Resource Development Programs).

Shaq doctorate degree - Shaquille O'Neal attended UoP
Shaquille O’Neal attended UoP and later earned a doctorate degree

But I noticed an interesting thread in the Gawker story about Shaq’s graduation. The entertainer and former basketball star received a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix prior to getting his doctorate from Barry. The Gawker story only mentioned Shaquille O’Neal’s UoP degree in passing, but it brought out a lot of spirited comments, many of them highly critical of University of Phoenix degrees.

MicMutt started off the thread with this comment:

Does “a Master’s degree from University of Phoenix” even mean anything?

A bunch of sarcastic comments followed (“It means your check to the University of Phoenix cleared”, “I hope so, that’s where I received my MD. Surgery rotation was cake”, etc.). But there was a serious response, too:


Lots of companies (and government agencies) pay for their employees to return to school for MBAs and such, and a substantial number of those people end up at UoP. It’s one of the top destinations because a lot of the time the employee just needs those extra letters behind his/her name, and the curriculum isn’t really that different from any other program.

However, one UoP supporter fired back at MicMutt with this:

You know what, if I ran a business I would take a UofP MBA over a BC/Columbia MBA every day of the week. Usually the people taking online classes are doing so because they are already out in the workforce, not everyone had daddy paying their tuition.

Focus on Shaq’s UoP master’s degree highlight concern over UoP standards

From there the conversation turned into a bitter war about privilege, ability, standards, career opportunities, and whether or not UoP degrees are legit. Example:

You know what? I do run a business and, as MicMutt said, a UoP MBA counts for very little. Traditional public and private not-for-profit universities offer online programs, and there are only two reasons someone would choose UoP:
1. Couldn’t get accepted to a program with legitimate admissions criteria;
2. Not sophisticated enough to realize that UoP is among the most expensive choices and has among the worst reputations.
This is not the sort of person I am interested in hiring for anything other than low-level grunt work.

These comments are cruel and unfair to students who put in a lot of work to earn their degrees. However, they do reflect real problems with UoP standards (which are affected by its for-profit mission) and perception in the marketplace. I wrote about this issue six years ago on another blog, and the post attracted more than 100 comments from UoP supporters and critics.

My publishing company counts newer for-profit schools as well as nonprofit educational institutions among its customers, with our LinkedIn book being one of the top sellers for students from both types of schools. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Regardless of which school they attend, many grad students want to improve their career opportunities. It’s not just about getting a bigger paycheck, but also being able to network with other professionals and finding new job opportunities via LinkedIn’s huge jobs database.

Update: According to Essence, “this doctoral degree is [O’Neal’s] proudest accomplishment.”

Online education hype: The Stanford experiment

I just posted a comment on a Chronicle of Education column by Kevin Carey about an online education experiment at Stanford. The Stanford experiment, involving an AI class taught by computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, was an incredible success — more than 100,000 people took it. It’s also proof of the effectiveness of online education to spread knowledge to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend the class in person. I’ve been a big fan of Khan Academy for years, and fully support what MIT is doing with MITx.

But what I object to is when people falsely equate online and in-classroom education. As I have said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the online experience is not the same. It may be more convenient, but it fails in several key respects. After Carey made the claim that the online students in the Stanford class “were experiencing exactly what the Stanford students were experiencing,” I responded with this comment:

No they weren’t.

They couldn’t raise their hands or participate in any spontaneous exchange of ideas with the instructor and each other.

They couldn’t approach the professor after class at the podium to ask follow-up questions.

They were watching the lecture on a small video screen. The in-class students were getting a full-resolution, high fidelity experience.

Did they have advantages over the in-class students? Certainly — being able to rewind the video or study from their comfort of your home is incredibly liberating. And many of those students were certainly more dedicated than the in-class students who fell asleep.

But the claim that the online experience is “exactly” the same is false. The idea that it’s “better” is also debatable, although that depends a lot on the values individuals assign to face-to-face educational interaction, convenience, and other factors.

What do you think? Is the Stanford experiment a harbinger of things to come, or is it a bunch of unwarranted hype for online education?

University of Maryland University College: “The perfect place to keep a big secret”

University of Maryland University College
University of Maryland University College

Imagine a university that has tens of thousands of students, yet few of them even know the name of the president of the institution. A university in which final exams apparently don’t need to be taken in person with a proctor present. A university in which faculty don’t get tenure, never hold full faculty meetings, and seldom know the senior administrators running the school. A university “whose leaders are more interested in making money and building an empire … than in educating students.”

I’m not talking about University of Phoenix or the other bad boys of the for-profit, online education world. This is University of Maryland University College, which, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, has seen high levels of leadership tumult over the past few years and recently saw its top administrator, President Susan C. Aldridge, being placed on indefinite leave. It’s not clear what prompted her removal, and faculty aren’t talking. But the structure of the school and its offerings are hardly typical of state-run colleges, as noted by the Chron:

[University of Maryland] University College has more than 100 worldwide locations, but online education is at the center of its operation. It claims to be the largest public university in the United States, with more than 90,000 students, many of them part time. Among them are students who work full-time jobs and have little emotional connection to the university, much less to its leadership.

Studying for an exam in the library at UMUC’s academic center in Largo on Tuesday, Ejike Michael looked perplexed when asked by a reporter what he made of Ms. Aldridge’s unexplained absence. Mr. Michael has spent a year at the college taking classes toward a master’s degree in information assurance, but he sheepishly conceded he had never even heard of Ms. Aldridge.

“I don’t care. I don’t know. You come here and do what you do,” said Mr. Michael, hunched over a giant tome, Network Security: The Complete Reference.

Mr. Michael says he is fascinated with his classes, which are offered at odd hours that cater to working adults like him.

UMUC, while state-run, shares some features of the flexible, online-heavy, and career-focused for-profit institutions that play such a prominent role in delivering education to adults.

The college exists “in this gray area between the two,” said Richard Garrett, an online-education expert who is managing director of the consultancy Eduventures. UMUC officials felt “more freedom than perhaps the average public institution has to embrace new delivery modes, new audiences,” he says, “but have equally felt that [they’re] still part of a state institution.”

But some of the same qualities that help the institution compete in the adult market may also help explain the almost total silence surrounding Ms. Aldridge.

University College employs a largely adjunct faculty. Of nearly 2,000 instructors, 88 percent are part time, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Multiyear contracts, which a handful of nonprofit colleges offer in lieu of tenure, are rarely offered at the university.

Because they don’t have tenure, faculty at University of Maryland University College are afraid to speak out. But a small group of faculty based in Asia were brave enough to question the school’s policies and direction under Aldridge, reports the Washington Post:

The faculty faulted the Aldridge administration for alleged cuts that struck them as unfair, such as cancelling math, language and writing labs, requiring students in science labs to pay for “a nonexistent laboratory kit,” declining to pay instructors to teach tutorial labs, and refusing to compensate faculty for travel expenses and even for the cost of white-board markers.

“The administration is continually offloading institutional expenses onto faculty and students alike,” one respondent wrote.

The administration unilaterally reduced online classes to eight weeks, shorter than the average college semester, and did so “without discussion with the faculty,” Whealy wrote.

Aldridge “consistently and strenuously opposed” attempts by Asia instructors to form a faculty governance group, an indication, in their minds, that she was reluctant to involve faculty in decision-making.

Welcome to the 21st century college.

Should you go to grad school?

Should you go to grad school - Harvard Widener LibraryFrom running several student-oriented blogs, I know that lots of people are searching for information about grad school. The search keywords that show up in my traffic logs are telling. “Is -name of school- worth it”, “will a degree from -name of school- look good on my resume” or “will a degree from -name of school- help me get a good job” are three common examples that are typed into Google, and end up on my blogs.

But one thing I don’t see nearly as often are searches relating to the quality of the programs in question. This is unfortunate, not only because I spent years blogging about research, readings, classroom exercises, and hands-on projects (all indicators of quality and a window into the experience of the grad school programs I attended), but also because it tells me many people don’t care about quality. Rather, the focus is what hiring managers will think of seeing the diploma or school name on a resume.

It’s sad, because grad school can be a wonderful experience for people who feel passionate about a certain topic or have a hunger for learning. It’s also a hard academic journey that can derail people’s personal lives and careers. But many prospective grad school students downplay those considerations, and remain obsessed about getting the right grad school name on their resume.

Should you go to grad school: advice from The Boston Globe

Devin Cole, writing for the Boston Globe, has a nice take on whether or not someone should go to grad school. He writes:

You may be looking at grad school for engineering, art, or business. Whatever the field may be, go because you want to and are excited by thought of it. Go because you know its worth giving up whatever else you might do for a few years.

Don’t go just to boost your resume.

Don’t go because you think you’ll make more money.

And don’t go because you don’t know what else to do.

In other words, you should go to grad school for the right reasons. If it’s just about getting a few lines of text on your resume, or improving your standing in the eyes of friends, families, or coworkers, be honest with yourself about your priorities and what really matters in life.

Educational “badges” as an alternative to diplomas?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article on the rise of educational badges, a reward/accomplishment system that some online educational services like Khan Academy are using. Here’s the summary:

Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of “badges” to certify skills and abilities. If scouting focuses on outdoorsy skills like tying knots, these badges denote areas employers might look for, like mentorship or digital video editing. Many of the new digital badges are easy to attain—intentionally so—to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom.

The article goes on to ask whether easy-to-understand badges that denote focused study or skills will undermine traditional diplomas, which offer very little insights into the specific skills or abilities that were attained.

In my opinion, this is unlikely, at least for some professions such as information technology. We’ve seen efforts like this in the past, such as certification programs based on in-class or online instructions. While certification exams are a prerequisite for certain occupations, they are sometimes seen as a poor indicator of how well someone will perform in real-world situations. Badges and certificates also suffer from short shelf-lives relative to the value of a diploma, which has brand power that can last decades.

It will be interesting to see how the badge system evolves, and whether it can gain strength through acceptance of widely followed standards or partnerships with testing organizations or government agencies.