Why the Harvard Extension School still struggles with reputation

Someone posed an interesting question on an earlier blog post about Harvard Extension School degrees. JJ asked:

I found out that the Extension has been more than 100 years since 1910. Here comes to a question: Is that enough to build the reputation? How come people are still having the same arguments? Why there are still employers who think it’s fraud when someone leaves out “Extension” on their resume?

Here’s my answer to the first question about building a good Harvard Extension School reputation.

Until about 30 years ago, there were relatively few Extension School degrees granted – maybe a few dozen every year, including the now-defunct associates degree. The focus of the degree programs was far more limited, particularly for the graduate degrees. There were almost no students from outside the Boston area. This was before the World Wide Web, so you had to come to campus to attend class, which limited the student body to those living within driving range or using public transportation.

If there aren’t many graduates from a university, it’s very hard to build a reputation. That’s not just a Harvard Extension School issue, it’s true for many small colleges or small programs within larger university settings.

Things started to change in the 1980s and 1990s when Dean Michael Shinagel took over the program and implemented major updates and launched new programs. Collectively, these efforts changed the Extension School from a sleepy continuing education program to one of the larger degree-granting schools within Harvard University.

He expanded online education and degree options for the ALM program beyond traditional liberal arts and science concentrations, including areas that Harvard faculty had never taught, such as journalism and digital media. (The ALM Management and IT programs have been particularly successful, graduating thousands of people in the past 10 years.)

Shinagel also ramped up the ability for non-Harvard faculty to teach for credit, added prerecorded Harvard College classes for credit online, and increased the number of online classes allowed for the degree programs. The result has been an explosion of students and graduates, particularly since 2000. (If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the Extension School and the changes he led, I recommend his book The Gates Unbarred.)

The reputation of the school among students and alumni is fantastic. Here’s what I wrote 12 years ago, after finishing my ALM History degree:

The course offerings in a few liberal arts fields are superb. Harvard has a large number of extremely talented faculty who are used to working with very bright colleagues and students, and the university has world-class libraries and other facilities. The rich Extension School course catalog reflects these factors. It is a wonderful feeling to browse through the course offerings before the semester starts, seeing what’s available and who’s teaching certain sections. …

The quality and rigor of the ALM/Liberal Arts program attracts high achievers. In my graduating class, there were successful professionals as well as students who had completed their undergraduate and earlier graduate degrees at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those who are unprepared for serious study won’t get very far. Some prospective degree candidates assume that the experience will be akin to a typical continuing education program. They quickly learn otherwise. While anyone can take a class at the Extension School, students who want to study for a degree have to prove they can walk the walk before they are admitted.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School in the eyes of the public is not as good. This is partly because of a large number of HES grads who don’t acknowledge they went to the Extension School. If successful grads don’t publicly state they attended Harvard Extension School, how can the public know their educational background includes years of study at the Extension School?

A related issue: people who deliberately misrepresent themselves as Harvard College or Harvard Business School students and get caught, as well as high-profile graduates who tout “Harvard University” on their resumes and then are identified as HES grads, which to many outsiders looks like misrepresentation or fraud. These cases bring down the reputation of the school. I’ve written about the misrepresentation issue extensively on “What employers think about Harvard Extension School degrees,” and I’ll end this post the same way:

HES grads should be proud of what they have accomplished and be proud to list “Harvard Extension School” on their resumes. If enough people do so and do as well in their careers as they did while at HES, the reputation of the Harvard Extension School will grow … making it easier for all Extension School grads to leverage ALB and ALM degrees to advance their careers.

Fortunately, the tide is starting to turn. I see more and more people willing to emphasize their Harvard Extension School degree or teaching credentials, and there is definitely more student pride. If these trends continue, the reputation of the Extension School will improve.

 

 

Video: Dean Shinagel addressing 2008 Harvard Extension School graduation ceremony

I just rediscovered this video: the former dean of the Harvard Extension School, Dean Michael Shinagel, addressing the 481 graduating ALM, ALB, and certificate recipients in 2008. He talks about everything from his work in progress (The Gates Unbarred), the profiles of the graduating students, and other topics. There are many statistics and anecdotes that HES alums and current students may find interesting. Enjoy!

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 bends the 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; the rules are bent for 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.

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

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.
  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.
  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.

 

Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines are bogus

If you are a graduate of the Harvard Extension School, how should you list this accomplishment on your résumé, or on LinkedIn?

That’s easy. You type “Harvard Extension School” in the place where the university name is supposed to go. For the degree name, write out “Bachelor of Liberal Arts” or “Master of Liberal Arts”, or type the official designation, ALB or ALM. Then add “Museum Studies”, “History”, “Biology”, “Information Technology”, “Management”, or other concentration in the place where the field of study is listed.

Simple, right? It clearly identifies the school you attended, the degree you received, and what you studied.

However, for some Harvard Extension School graduates, it is not so simple. For evidence of this, take a look at this comment on a recent Atlantic essay about the Extension School:

I have a master’s degree from Harvard obtained through the HES. My diploma says Harvard University (in latin no less). I have had headhunters and recruiters question me on it and state that it was misleading for me to list Harvard University as my school. My diploma says Harvard University, my classes were all taken on campus at Harvard (before online classes were popular), so many had to be taught by Harvard professors and not instructors, I completed all the degree requirements. I don’t see anything misleading and I don’t know how else to list it on my resume.

The headhunters are right. It is misleading. Every student and alumnus at Harvard identifies with the school he or she is affiliated with. Harvard Medical School students will tell people they go to the Harvard Medical School, or “the Med school.” Harvard Business School students identify with the “B-school” or HBS. Law School. Divinity. Ed school. Kennedy school. And so on.

To outsiders, things are a bit different. “Harvard” or “Harvard University” is synonymous with “Harvard College” in the eyes of the public, and many people in the corporate world. At the graduate level, “Harvard University” is associated with the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences programs that lead to MAs and PhDs. The Extension School is very different than the College or the advanced programs in GSAS.

As for the comment that she doesn’t know how to list the name of her school on her resume, why not list “Harvard Extension School”?

This question gets to the heart of the identity issue. Some graduates don’t want to admit they attended the Harvard Extension School, because of the stigma associated with the part-time program. Other Extension School graduates deliberately take advantage of the “Harvard University” label to mislead people into thinking they attended the highly selective College or GSAS programs. Indeed, every few years in The Crimson there are reports of Extension School students (matriculated or not) insinuated or outright claiming to be College students to other people at Harvard. It happens all the time.

But there’s another possibility: The Extension School tells its graduates that it’s actually OK to use “Harvard University” as long as graduates also include the bogus “in Extension Studies” designation when spelling out the name of the degree (NOTE: The guidelines changed in 2014; please see the update at the bottom of this post):

Harvard Extension School Resume Guidelines

No one at the Harvard Extension School majors in “Extension Studies”, so why do we have to state this on our résumés? The only reason I can think of is to compensate for the misleading use of “Harvard University”. But if you are clearly stating the name of the school (e.g., Harvard Extension School) instead of “Harvard University” there is no need to add this inaccurate qualifier to the name of the degree.

The requirement to use “in Extension Studies” can cause real problems, as one ALB graduate found out a few years ago and described on a now defunct online Extension School forum:

Want to add my 5 cents to the problem. I graduate with ALB in 2014; currently enrolled in ALM, Software Engineering.

For the last 6 months I’ve been looking for jobs in the US (I’m a remote foreign student). HES doesn’t provide student visas for foreign students, so it was already a challenge to find companies that would even consider interviewing someone with a US degree, but without a temporary permit to work after graduation (so called OPT). I was aware of that from the very beginning, but didn’t expect to that so few companies actually work with foreigners without experience. In case you’re interested, I didn’t get a single offer in Boston even though I tried really hard to move there. Luckily NYC and San Francisco were much more visa-friendly cities.

After I found a couple of companies who were ready to interview despite the required visa sponsorship and almost lack of experience, I had to explain “liberal” part of the degree name (nobody actually paid attention to “Extension School” words). It wasn’t too bad since most HRs and engineers I talked to were more interested in my actual knowledge and whether I can confirm that I know the things I listed in my resume. Liberal/extension “flaw” wasn’t much of a concern for them (including big companies, e.x. Google, Microsoft). And I personally felt fine about that since my program of study really wasn’t that rigorous compared to the college one (I skipped a couple of math classes that I wasn’t interested in).

However, after I got a job offer and started to work with the lawyers the real troubles came into play. The degree officially says “in extension studies” rather than “in Computer Science” whereas the transcripts specify concentration (sciences), field of study (computer science) and a minor (thesis/research). The lawyers immediately saw an inconsistency between transcripts and the diploma. For a couple of days I was explaining to them how HES works, provided links to the web site and even contacts of HES admission office for further inquiries. In the end, my attorney said that they’ll have to send my degree for special evaluation to confirm Computer Science concentration because the transcripts specify one thing and the diploma a different one.

I’m sure it will all work out and I’ll get an additional paper from some evaluation service that will confirm that my degree is a real computer science degree, but Harvard should feel embarrasses that lawyers have to send a degree from Harvard with transcripts to verify the field of study mentioned in the transcripts.

In short, I don’t complain about “liberal” arts or requirement to specify Extension School in my resume and about frankly explaining to employers what school I attended and why. I slightly object the lack of F1 support because that wasn’t the case before 2009. However, I strongly feel that the degree conferred in Harvard Yard in Tercentenary Theatre with all other Harvard diplomats should not be a subject for any additional verification or legal doubts.

This young student is absolutely right. There should not be any doubt or questioning about the degree he received, yet he was subjected to something that graduates from other Harvard schools would never experience. Three stupid words — “In Extension Studies” — threatened his ability to work at a job that he was otherwise qualified to do. (Note, however, that some Harvard Extension School grads have been able to get jobs at major tech companies, such as this ALB grad who got hired by Google)

A convenient excuse

Of the Extension School graduates who do state “Harvard University” on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, most leave out the required “In Extension Studies” label that the Extension School demands. Their argument: “Harvard Extension School is one of the 13 degree-granting schools, therefore I have the right to use ‘Harvard University’.” It’s a convenient excuse that lets them sidestep the stigma and questions from colleagues and recruiters. The comment above as well as many of the responses to this blog post reflect this attitude.

There is an exception to the official Harvard Extension School résumé guidelines: People who have completed the ALM in Management (ALMM) program are supposed to use “Harvard University” and “Extension School”, but not “In Extension Studies”. Here’s the screen shot from the current Extension School website (NOTE: this is no longer accurate, see 2020 note at the bottom of this post):

Harvard Extension School ALM Management resume guidelines

Why this exception? My guess is the Harvard Business School got tired of fakers running around suggesting that they had completed the MBA program …. or the Extension School wanted to avoid friction with the B-School.

The Old Guidelines Were Bogus, Too

It should be noted that the guidelines have changed several times since I started the original Harvard Extension blog. For instance, the 2008 website’s official resume guidelines did not require “Extension Studies” or “Extension School” anywhere:

old Harvard Extension School resume guidelines

I never followed those guidelines, either. I felt “Harvard University, Master of Liberal Arts, Concentration In History” was misleading and not representative of the degree that I earned through the Extension School. It could easily be confused with a Harvard GSAS degree. I have always used “Harvard Extension School” on my LinkedIn profile and paper versions of my resume, and clearly state this fact on this blog and elsewhere.

Bottom line:

  1. Be proud of your school. As anyone who has completed the ALB or ALM programs know, it requires years of dedicated study and some extremely challenging academic requirements, from the Harvard Extension School admissions requirements to the ALM graduate thesis. People who take online classes have it even harder, as there are no nearby students to turn to for support and it’s often impossible to ask questions during class or interact with faculty.
  2. The Extension School’s official guidelines obfuscate the degree and serve no one except for those graduates who want to claim “Harvard” on their resumes while avoiding the actual name of the school (no longer true since the Extension School updated its guidelines to allow “Harvard University Extension School” while dropping “in Extension Studies”).
  3. If you insist on using “Harvard University” on your resume while knowing that most people reading it will assume it refers to Harvard College or GSAS, you’re either fooling yourself or are deliberately misleading people. When people find out, it not only makes you look bad, it reflects badly on all of us.
  4. Be clear about where you attended school at Harvard, and be clear about what you studied. People expect it, and it’s the right thing to do.

2014 Update: A comment on this post in October 2014 alerted me to the change in the official guidelines. The school now allows two methods of listing your Extension School degree on your resume:

  1. Bachelor [or Master] of Liberal Arts, Harvard University Extension School. Include concentration or field of study, minor, and degree honors when applicable.

  2. Bachelor [or Master] of Liberal Arts, Extension Studies, Harvard University

Clearly the school wants alumni to include “Extension” somewhere in the listing.

2019 Update 1: Another comment on this post notes that the guidelines have changed yet again. Now, the concentration is removed:

On your résumé, the degree name may be listed as either:

Bachelor [or Master] of Liberal Arts, Harvard University Extension School.
Bachelor [or Master] of Liberal Arts, Extension Studies, Harvard University.

But “Extension” is clearly stated in both cases.

2019 Update 2: An Extension School fan/follower says he received via email the following clarification from the Extension School regarding how to list degrees on resumes/CVs, which follows the 2014 guidelines:

Harvard Extension degree listing via Jay Waters 052219

However, as of May 22, 2019, the Extension School website still shows this:

Harvard Extension School resume listing May 2019

Meaning anyone who reviews the official Harvard Extension School guidelines on the Extension School website will still think it’s not OK to list the concentration – only “in Extension Studies,” or nothing.

As someone noted on Twitter, “It’s absurd to think it’s unethical to mention your concentration or field of study on your resume.”

2019 Update #3: The Harvard Extension School has reverted the language back to 2014, thanks to a persistent supporter and (I suspect) Dean Huntington Lambert being tagged in a Twitter thread about the issue. First, what the site now says:

Harvard Extension School diploma listing

Second, the context as explained in an email to a Harvard Extension supporter:

Resumes are important to HES alums and new grads, and it seem amazing that the web page explaining the official resume guidelines would be treated so cavalierly. I give credit to Lambert and his staff for quickly correcting this oversight, but it also makes me wonder what else has been stripped away from the official Extension School website in order to “reduce clutter.”

2020 Update: A comment by Laura alerted me to the fact that the official resume guidelines for ALM Management degrees are now grouped with the guidelines for other Harvard Extension School degrees.

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:

aaxan:

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 studentswant 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.

What’s missing from Harvard’s edX announcement for HarvardX

Harvard EdX is partnering with MIT

The presidents of MIT and Harvard had a major announcement this morning regarding EdX, a non-profit venture to make certain Harvard and MIT courses freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Unlike MIT’s decades-old OpenCourseWare initiative, which basically involved posting course curricula and problem sets online along with a few videos, edX goes much further. MITx and soon HarvardX has more video, structure, community, and even testing mechanisms to students can track their progress. EdX will be an independent umbrella organization to help run the two programs and share certain resources.

EdX is not really news for MIT. MITx was announced late last year, and made a huge impact. Hundreds of thousands of students have signed up to take MIT’s science and engineering classes. MIT even announced that people completing a set of courses would receive some sort of non-degree certification. MITx (and Khan Academy) made a lot of universities wake up to the possibilities of supplemental learning for society at large. Harvard was apparently starting to feel left behind; a source told the Boston Globe that Harvard felt “we didn’t want to look like we were playing catch-up.” Indeed, while MITx is already operational and serving its mission, HarvardX won’t offer any classes until later this year.

HarvardX and the Harvard Extension School

In addition, I noticed something peculiar about the HarvardX side of the venture. Harvard has been running Internet-based distance education continually since the 1990s through the Harvard Extension School. The announcement said that EdX would be separate from this and other existing distance education offerings through the Harvard Business School and Harvard Medical School. In the press conference, Harvard’s provost briefly mentioned the expertise that the Extension School had developed, but it looks like there is no connection between HarvardX and the Havard Extension School.

Indeed, I am wondering if the free Harvard offerings from edX will compete with the Extension School’s own desire to get paying students to “sample” Harvard courses online. If casual students see that they can sample Harvard courses for free via edX, why should they pay thousands of dollars to take an Extension School class online? The Extension School can say that they offer credit for online courses. But to casual students paying $2000 or more for educational credit that will probably never be used, this doesn’t seem like a good value considering Harvard-branded knowledge can be obtained elsewhere for free.

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?