Harvard headlines: Clickbait and the Extension School

Last week there was a flurry of Harvard headlines, after a male student attacked a senior citizen at Logan airport. I won’t get into the details of the story itself, but wanted to talk about the sensationalist coverage and the collateral damage to the Harvard Extension School.

When the story first hit the Internet, it was all about the Harvard connection:
Harvard headlines extension school
Many of the initial headlines, including those from Boston .com, the Huffington Post, and other national and international outlets, omitted the fact that the student, Cameron Shenk, was an Extension School student. In the absence of such context or knowledge of the Extension School, many people skimming the news would assume it was a Harvard College student, even though Mr. Shenk and his lawyer did nothing to insinuate otherwise. It’s a common assumption, as I’ve cited repeatedly on this blog (see my earlier article about Harvard Extension School resume guidelines).

Predictably, when the Internet commenters and follow-on coverage appeared, the angle turned from tragic crime to criticism of the Extension School and its students. Boston .com’s Eric Levenson claims that Extension School students “just need an interest to learn and some money to spend,” neglecting to mention the wide gap between casual class takers and degree candidates who have to prove they can do coursework at a high level before being admitted.

As I said in the comments section of the Boston .com article, there are a couple of issues at play when it comes to mainstream media stories about the Extension School:

  1. Clickbait headline writers who want to play up any story involving weird/unstable/criminal behavior and “Harvard”
  2. A continuing education division that is not well understood (for example, there are casual class takers as well as degree candidates) and often gets defined by strange headlines or fakers.
  3. A student and alumni population which includes a fair number of people who are apt to play down their Extension School affiliation or deliberately mislead others into thinking they attended Harvard College or one of the highly competitive professional programs, such as the Business School.

I think journalists such as Eric Levenson deserve much of the blame Unfortunately, previous stories about Extension/College imposters, combined with a large number of alumni who claim “Harvard” while hiding “Extension” are adding another negative context to this story.

It’s unfortunate, because the Extension School has some great classes and degree programs, and have helped hundreds of thousands of people further their educational goals. Most of them are good people and are honest about the Extension School affiliation, yet the fakers and bizarre headlines are increasingly defining what it means to be an Extension School student.

I welcome your comments below.

Harvard Black Mass debacle and the damage to the Extension School

Harvard Black Mass flyer
Harvard Black Mass announcement (click to see full size)

Once again, a Harvard Extension School club has caused great offense on campus. In 2011, it was a student group inviting a panel of anti-gay Christian conservatives to campus. Yesterday, it was the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club inviting a New York Satanic society to campus to hold a “Black Mass”, a deeply offensive ritual meant to mock core Catholic beliefs. The Harvard Black Mass event, originally scheduled to be held in the basement of Memorial Hall, was moved to the Hong Kong restaurant after outrage exploded across campus and the national media.

There should be little surprise that the event drew such outrage. Boston is still a heavily Catholic town, and the event’s Harvard association magnified the interest and controversy. But I was saddened to see the frustration directed at Extension School students who had nothing to do with the event. I was also disappointed in the poor response by the Extension School and the non-response by Extension School student leaders, namely the officers of the Harvard Extension Student Association (HESA).

Reaction to news of Harvard’s Black Mass

The comments on The Crimson website in reaction to the Harvard Black Mass news illustrate how the reputation of the Harvard Extension School and its students became collateral damage, with some people going so far as to call into question the necessity of the Extension School:

Harvard ’14 Lowell House:

I hate this school. Especially demoralizing that this is coming from the extension school.

Increase Mather:

Most annoying about this is the fact that people reading/hearing about this stupidity in the media will not focus on that word “extension,” which basically means this is an organization of random people who paid Harvard a couple hundred dollars to take a dumbed-down evening course. They are not “Harvard students,” and in most instances they are not even taught by “Harvard faculty.” They are outside posers who use Harvard’s classrooms in the evening — period. Then they go around either lying by omission — “When I was at Harvard” — or outright — “I graduated from Harvard,” ultimately damaging the brand for all the rest of us simply by being who they are and claiming to be who we are.

We have enough problems with controversy generated by legitimate Harvard students and faculty. Why is it that this sort of thing always seems to come from extension school students or visiting “executive education” pole dancers in the business school or some other abomination abusing Harvard’s good name?


Why are the Extension School and its students included in “Harvard?” When last I looked, the Extension School provided a way for a limited number of local people to pay and physically attend courses by Harvard faculty and earn, conceivably some day, in the case of a very few of them, a peculiar degree–not a BA. This must have been an exercise in 19th century-style Community Relations. Care has always been taken to keep these locals rigorously segregated from “real Harvard students.”

It seems to me that EdX renders this instrumentality, with all the questions it raises as to selectivity of admissions and the rights and discipline of Extension students, finally obsolete. Our faculty doesn’t need the very modest supplemental income.

Assuming academic integrity, quality and degree content could be assured, which they could right now, I feel great assurance that even so, and despite accelerating advances in medical science, no one capable of reading this will live long enough to see the day when degrees are awarded to EdX students (who, in contradistinction to Extension, are NOT “Harvard students”). The reasons for this are entirely financial.

But, OK. Why go on offering some weird degree? Lop off the decorative old branch and let EdX grow, even though it won’t be green.

This is not the first time that the Harvard Extension School’s reputation has been tarnished by the actions of individual students. Negativity has been brought to the fore when fake Harvard College students with Extension School backgrounds are outed or Extension Student alumni publish C.V.s that avoid mentioning their Extension School affiliation.

Official Response To The Black Mass Event From The Harvard Extension School

The Extension School’s response to the Black Mass was to portray this as a student free speech issue, and attempt to equate the Black Mass with other club events, such as a Shinto tea ceremony. Meanwhile, the elected leaders of HESA — including the director of club affairs — were nowhere to be seen. This would have been an opportunity to reject the Black Mass as totally offensive and unwelcome, and point out that the actions of a few naive and misguided students do not reflect the attitudes of the rest of the student body.

For the Black Mass event, the cultural club went through the trouble of creating an online flier (since removed from weebly) but I couldn’t find any record of the names of the club officers. The organizers of the Black Mass were defended by Harvard on the grounds of free speech rights, but nowhere did they actually have to clearly identify themselves or stand behind their pronouncements.

My advice to Harvard, the Harvard Extension School and HESA: If clubs from any part of Harvard can use “free speech” as a reason to organize any event on campus, then the club organizers have to publicly take responsibility for the event and any fallout or damage that transpires. If club leaders insist on anonymity, then they shouldn’t be granted official club status — and the events should take place off campus.

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


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” umbrella to mislead people into thinking they attended highly selective College or GSAS programs. Indeed, every few years in The Crimson there are reports of Extension School students (matriculated or not) insinuating 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 diplomas 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 Harvard 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. That is, it’s either “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.

RIP: Professor Thomas H. O’Connor

Professor Thomas O'Connor. Photo: Boston Globe
Professor Thomas O’Connor. Photo: Boston Globe

I was saddened to learn of the death of Professor Thomas O’Connor, one of the great historians of Boston’s modern history. I took a class with Prof. O’Connor at the Harvard Extension School in 2005 — his last, as it turned out. On the final day of classes Dean Shinagel came into the lecture hall with a small marching band to present an award.

Professor O’Connor absolutely deserved it. He was a marvelous instructor who had an innate grasp of the life of the city from Colonial times to the present, and really explained the commercial/political/social forces that shaped the modern city. He was a great storyteller, and brought Boston politics from the early 20th century to life with interesting anecdotes and asides.

Professor O’Connor was also a witness to many of the historical trends he discussed. He grew up in South Boston, and saw urban renewal, the bussing crisis, and the terms of many important mayors, including Mayor White and I believe Mayor Curley.

Worth sharing is this quote in the preface of The Hub:

“By eventually adapting to change and accommodating itself to modern ways — although at times grudgingly, often angrily, and almost always slowly — Boston has continued to be a live, functioning urban community that has not given into the nostalgic impulses that can so often turn a once-famous city into a lifeless historical shrine. …

The most serious challenge Boston faces in the future, however, is not longer confined to the construction of high-rise buildings, multilane highways, or extravagant commercial developments. The current challenge is the extent to which Boston will be able to retain its own distinctive identity as a city whose moral standards, civic virtues, and intellectual accomplishments once inspired a nation.”


Professor O’Connor had a way of making his large classes feel personal. For instance, I remember him talking about the jazz clubs he used to frequent as a young man, or what Scollay Square used to be like before successive Boston mayors (Curley, White, Flynn) changed the face of the city with various urban renewal projects.

He will be missed.

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.

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.

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.

Harvard Extension School citation program killed off

Spotted recently on the Harvard Extension School website: Evidence that the Harvard Extension School citation program has been killed off:

Harvard Extension School citation program 2005-2011

The Harvard Extension School citation program was good while it lasted. It let people who wanted to concentrate in a specialized field show their accomplishments and differentiate their degree — a significant issue for people in the Liberal Arts ALM, who don’t receive diplomas that reflect their course of study.

But the rules were terribly frustrating, in terms of what counted and the relatively short window for completing it. I sent this email to the school in 2008 asking about the possibility of getting a citation, based on my coursework and research:

I am a soon-to-be ALM graduate (History), and I have a question about citations. I see from the Extension School website that the window of opportunity for a citation in East Asian Studies lasts three years, and I would like to know if the following four courses — which were all taken and completed within a three-year period, starting in the summer of 2004 — would count. They are:

  1. ANTH S-171 – Archaeology of the Silk Road
  2. HIST E-1834 – Chinese Emigration in Modern Times
  3. History S-1855 – Film and History in Postwar Japan and Post-Mao China
  4. HIST E-499 – ALM Thesis (Title: Making a Case for Quantitative Research in the Study of Modern Chinese History: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993.)

You may recall that I asked about this a few years back, but that was before I completed my thesis, under the direction of Alastair Iain Johnston, the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs. Getting such a citation would accurately reflect my overall studies at the Extension School, considering much of my coursework and all of my thesis research at the Extension School has been on East Asian history — especially China.

The answer: No, because the thesis didn’t count. This was despite the fact that the thesis was directly related to modern Chinese history, was directed by a tenured faculty member and expert in the field, and took 10 times as much effort than any single class at the Extension School.

In addition, I had taken another eligible class in early 2003 (History E-1830: The Emergence of Modern China). But again it couldn’t count toward a citation, as it was outside of the three-year window for a citation — hardy a rare occurrence, considering most students don’t have the luxury of being able to take classes so rapidly and certain courses aren’t offered every semester.

Harvard Extension School citation vs. Harvard Extension School certificate

Back to the retirement of the Harvard Extension School citation program. According to two curt emails sent to me by the Harvard Extension School staff member in charge, the school discontinued the citations in favor of Harvard Extension School certificates.

This doesn’t make sense. Certificates have nothing to do with most liberal arts master’s degrees offered by the Extension School, which was the focus of the citations. Rather, certificates are a profitable, short-term continuing education scheme for people in various industries, although the program page notes you can apply the course credit in four out of the five programs to professional ALM degrees. Several of the certificates, such as Web technologies, are entirely online — no face-to-face contact with fellow students or instructors required!

If you are earning a liberal arts ALM, and wanted to get additional recognition for your work in a certain field, you are out of luck. But that’s no surprise. The liberal arts character of the Extension School, not to mention the in-person classroom experience taught by Harvard professors that defined the Extension School experience beginning 100 years ago, has lately been given short shrift, in favor of scalable, impersonal online coursework that limits contact with actual Harvard professors and is oriented toward profitable professional education. I won’t get into that here, but you can read more about my thoughts on these and other Harvard Extension issues.

Another Harvard Extension School impostor

(Update at bottom) There is another sad tale of a Harvard Extension School student attempting to pass himself off as a Harvard College freshman. (Or maybe not; the person claims he went to the Extension School, but the school hasn’t confirmed it). I say “sad” because similar tales erupt every few years. They involve people who so want to be part of an elite group, that they lie about their backgrounds and use tricks to dupe other members of the Harvard community. Sometimes crimes are committed by the impostors, while at other times the friends or contacts from the larger Harvard community feel like their trust has been abused.

That’s bad enough. But there’s another element, too. When cases of Harvard Extension School impostors are exposed in such a public fashion, they perpetuate the notion that Extension School students are trying to pass themselves off as Harvard College students. I once thought these were isolated, rare examples. But I’m sorry to say that the more cases I see like this (at least four that have been reported in the press), coupled with vague or misleading claims by some Extension School students and alumni (e.g., saying “I’m a Harvard graduate” but going out of their way to avoid any mention of their Extension School affiliation), the more I realize that there are quite a few Extension students who have unhealthy identity issues and/or obsessions with the Harvard “brand”. It distracts from the positive experiences and contributions that many other Extension School students have made during their time at the University, and reflects poorly on us all. Thanks to the coverage in The Crimson of these cases, many or most of the members of the College classes from 2000-2015 have been exposed to news of Extension School posers actively misrepresenting themselves in an attempt to be viewed as Harvard College students.

How to fake being a Harvard College student

The Crimson has the story about the latest case:

… A 27-year-old student at Harvard Extension School was escorted out of Weld Hall on Thursday by Harvard University Police Department officers after sleeping in friends’ rooms in the freshman dormitory and telling students that he was a freshman at the College.

Over a period of two months, the Extension School student told Harvard College students that he lived in Weld, a dorm in Harvard Yard. He sometimes spent the night there when invited by freshman acquaintances.

The student also created a presence at Harvard online, posting frequently to the Harvard University Class of 2015 Facebook group and becoming friends on the social networking website with Harvard students he had never met in person. Pictures of him taken in freshman dorms and posted on Facebook added to his credibility, acquaintances said. Since Thursday, his account has become unsearchable and his posts to the Harvard freshman group are gone.

He was convincing enough with his words and online social networking profiles to dupe many students, including staff at the Crimson, who featured him in a magazine special earlier this year. But others knew he was lying, as he wasn’t in the Freshman Register and needed help getting access to certain buildings.

The Harvard Independent has more details about the ruses he used, as well as the text of a police report indicating stolen property (an ID card) was involved. He admitted to The Crimson that he lied about his College status and forged an ID card.

A lot of information is being disputed (read the comments of the Harvard Independent article), and there are allegations that the administration is trying to keep it out of the media, but it’s sure to be noticed. While the charges against him are relatively minor, his time at Harvard is over and the story is not good for the Extension School.

Update: The backlash has started. The story has spread to the national media (Gawker and HuffPo) and lots of negative comments on many of the articles. See the linked Crimson article, above, to understand the tone of the conversation.