More evidence of problems with distance education at Harvard

distance education at Harvard Extension
Distance education marketing material from Harvard Extension School

It’s so disappointing to hear about experiences like the one described below, but at the same time, I am not at all surprised. It’s the story of yet another earnest student signing up for distance education at Harvard Extension School, hoping to get access to “Harvard faculty and rigorous academics” and “engaging online classes” (as the ad above describes) and instead being treated to this:

Last term was my first semester at HES and I was surprised at the lack of assignment and test feedback that I received in the courses.

In my first course, I didn’t receive a grade or comments back on a ten page essay that was worth 15% of my final grade or on my final exam that was worth 25% of my final grade.

In my second course, I never received any feedback or grade on a book review that was submitted in mid-November, on 50 page group project, or on the final exam. In the aggregate, these three items represented 55% of my final grade.

My third course consisted of a series of smaller assignments worth either 5% or 10% of my final grade each. The instructors provided grades and comments for most of these assignments, but at the end of the course, feedback and grades for the final couple of assignments wasn’t provided.

The responses to “DesertDog” are telling. “Unfortunately your experiences are not foreign to me,” said one person, who has been taking distance education courses for years at the Extension School. Another Extension School student said, “Last semester, I took a course and did not receive notification of any grades until the final grade was posted at the end of the semester. I got no feedback at all. It was quite frustrating,” A third online education student reported that “Some of my professors didn’t give me any feedback on my final projects and essays even when all the final grades were posted and even while I asked them several times.”

Defenders of distance education at Harvard fight back

I’ve written about distance students being given a watered-down distance educational experience by the Harvard Extension School in the past (see “A sad day for the Harvard Extension School” to read yet another case). The usual responses? “You don’t know what you are talking about!” (even though I have taken distance education for credit) and “how dare you belittle distance education students!” (even though I am criticizing the Extension School and its policies, as opposed to students who try hard to get a good education).

Of course, not all faculty teaching distance education at Harvard Extension School are unresponsive. But regular reports like the ones above are a sign that many students feel misled about the Extension School’s promise of access to Harvard faculty and a true Harvard experience.

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.

Stanford free classes review: “Online lectures suck”

Stanford free classes reviewThere has been a huge buzz in the world of computer programming and online education over Stanford’s move to open up computer science lectures to the public. The ambitious move to offer free Stanford classes takes online learning beyond the model established by MIT OpenCourseWare — not only can members of the public have access to some of the highest-quality college-level instruction on the planet, but they are taking the same classes as Stanford students.

But not everyone is satisfied with the offerings. A Stanford student who tried one of the classes on machine learning says it was watered down and provided a poor substitute for in-person Stanford lectures. Here’s an excerpt of his Stanford free classes review:

… Since the video lectures were excellent in the class, I’ll start with the programming exercises. At the beginning, some of the programming assignments were challenging since I wasn’t used to matlab/octave programming or machine learning. However, the level of difficulty dropped off drastically as the quarter progressed. At its worst, I completed a few programming assignments without even knowing that the corresponding lectures had been released (I have never done machine learning in the past) …

… If these classes are going to be labeled as Stanford classes, then they should be taught as such. CS229a has by far been my easiest CS class (besides maybe the final project) I’ve taken at Stanford. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this, except now that Winter quarter registration has opened and I have found that half of my classes are now open to the public in the online format, I’m worried that the rest of the classes will follow this trend. If all of my classes suddenly become as easy 229a, I will be seriously disappointed. I came primarily to Stanford to learn and study – classes like CS229a don’t satiate that desire. Perhaps it’s a fluke and the other online classes will be much more difficult, but it is still worrisome. Stanford needs to keep rigor even in their online courses – it’s useless to lower the bar so low that it only takes a small step to get over. …

… Online lectures suck. Sure, they’re great for rainy days or people learning at a distance or people that don’t go to Stanford. However, these new classes are getting rid of in-person lectures completely. I met barely anyone in my CS229a class. Everything was done alone in my room, which is kind of crappy especially when there is such a nice campus right outside. If Stanford is going to offer these classes, then by all means offer them, but don’t make students take them as well. Have the professors teach as many students as they can in-person and the rest can watch online.”

(Be sure to read the reaction in the comments at the bottom of the post. There is more discussion of the class and Stanford’s online lectures on Hacker News)

Stanford free classes: A watered-down educational experience?

The concern about content being watered down is also valid one — the school apparently put the interests of the public ahead of its own students, which understandably does not sit well with them. However, there are several ways to serve both populations without sacrificing the interests of either group, such as not watering down the content or keeping the two groups separate when it comes to designing for-credit content.

As for issues with the online format, this post should be a wake-up call for Stanford administrators and people who assume that online coursework can be substituted for an in-class learning experience. While there are benefits, there are many pitfalls. I’ve been a critic of online education for years, based on the developments I’ve seen at the Harvard Extension School as well as my own experience taking an online precalculus class for credit at UC Berkeley.

Opening up education to everyone via the models established by OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy lets learners get access to once-exclusive knowledge, and is an admirable goal. But when watered-down online coursework is offered as an equivalent of an in-class experience, or are offered for credit, that’s when the value proposition is thrown into sharp focus.

(Interested in learning about programming with jQuery? My company publishes a book about jQuery plugin development.)

Harvard Extension School Admissions: Is it hard?

I hear a lot of anxiety from prospective degree candidates about Harvard Extension School admissions. They are worried about whether or not they will be admitted to their respective programs at the Extension School. One recent example involved an out-of-state student who wanted to join the Museum Studies ALM program. He emailed me after reading my blog about Harvard Extension, and was clearly very worried, particularly because he felt his undergraduate GPA was too low. He also had taken classes at other educational institutions. Could he get in to the Harvard Extension School?

My response:

… Don’t worry about admissions. I have NEVER heard of anyone who meets the stated admissions requirements of an EXT degree program being rejected.

And the requirements for admission are very clear: If you meet the Extension School GPA and course requirements (3 Extension School classes, including the recommended classes, with a 3.0 average), have an accredited degree from an undergraduate institution, answer the essay questions and other admission packet requirements, and pay the fees … that means you’re in.

You graduated from [redacted] with a diploma; therefore your undergraduate GPA does not matter. Besides your undergraduate degree, as long as you have taken the required EXT classes and gotten the minimum GPA, there is nothing stopping you from matriculating.

Even if you screw up the admissions essay (unlikely for anyone who has taken the prerequisite classes and gotten a 3.0 GPA), they will send the essay back, tell you what’s wrong, and ask you to resubmit.

Your other grades from [redacted] and any other educational experience has no bearing on your application.

Seeing as that you have graduated from college, the most important thing for you to do to get into this program is to start taking the recommended EXT classes and making sure you do really well at them. You don’t have to be a Mass. resident to apply to the Extension School, but I advise any student interested in the Extension School to relocate to Cambridge in order to get a true Harvard experience and real interaction with Harvard faculty, students, and facilities. For the Museum Studies program, this is a requirement, as there are few online courses available for this major.

My piece of advice in the last paragraph about taking classes on campus applies to all programs. If you want a Harvard education, being on campus is crucial. I think the current forms of distance education at the Harvard Extension School are providing students with an incomplete Harvard experience, usually with little or no interaction with faculty and fellow students. I have written about this extensively in the past, including on my Harvard Extension School blog:

Online education is a huge growth area for the Extension School, but the technologies used today are not a suitable replacement for in-class instruction and discussion. Unlike traditional face-to-face classes at the Extension School, contact with Harvard faculty in the online classes is limited. Even though many distance education students work extremely hard on assignments and tests, watching videos on the Extension School website and participating in limited online discussions does not represent a “Harvard-caliber” academic experience, as the Extension School claims. I strongly disagree with the Extension School’s liberal online credit policies, which allow students in the undergraduate ALB and graduate ALM in IT programs to complete upwards of 90% of their coursework online, without ever sitting in the same room with their classmates or professors. Tellingly, neither Harvard College nor Harvard’s professional schools offer online classes to their own students for degree credit.

I have additional thoughts about online education at the Harvard Extension School here on the Ipso Facto blog.

One last thing: If you read the above information, and still have questions about Harvard Extension School admissions, don’t ask me. Pick up the phone, and call the Extension School to speak with an admissions advisor. It costs nothing, and will save you lots of time and unnecessary worry. The number is (617) 495-9413.