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?

Quoiquilsoit:

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What is a MOOC? And why does it matter?

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

What is a MOOC? Reddit

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

HarvardX controversy prompts “What is a MOOC” post

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

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

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

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

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

What’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.

Highlighting user stories

For years, I’ve found the best way to illustrate what’s going on at the Harvard Extension School is to talk about the students and their experiences. Through interviews, personal blogs, emails, and message board postings I have been able to highlight both the good and the bad using voices that are totally authentic.

For instance, several years ago I spotted this blog post by a student who had just finished the Harvard ALB program. He was ecstatic about his experience learning under some of Harvard’s renowned faculty:

Overall I feel that I received the best undergraduate education possible. It was a great honor to study and then be a TA under Tom Hayes and run the Physics 123 lab — I think it’s entirely possible that Tom is the best introductory circuit design teacher in the world, and I know I am in great company. It was also a great honor to study cyberlaw at the Berkman center of Harvard law — as an undergraduate, I was able to take more IP, patent, copyright and digital law classes than are available at most law schools, including Larry Lessig’s former class “The Technology and Politics of Control”. I also learned Spanish with Professora Zetterstrand, studied the history of Boston under Robert Allison, and of course studied number theory, probability, topology, calculus, linear algebra, group theory, graph theory, etc. under professors Martinez, Boller, Winters, Bamberg, Towne. Astronomy at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Physics in the science center… comparative religious ethics and modern/contemporary American fiction in Harvard Hall. Museum studies with Mary Malloy (and the future directors of a couple dozen museums in the museum studies program), game theory with Neugeboren (who himself studied under Schelling, whose son Robert is also a close personal friend), psychology under Fersch, and the history of electronic music with Marshall all were brilliant courses also. So many of these professors were the best at what they do — leaders in their fields, the ones who wrote the books. And even though this was a “night school” program, Harvard refused to lower the bar and never failed to challenge me; many of the professors talked about how the curriculum in the college vs. night school was exactly the same, and in a number of cases the student projects and work in the night school exceeded that produced by the day students.

It’s through other user stories that I’ve been able to understand the problems with distance education at the Harvard Extension School. A group of students commenting on their distance education experience lamented the lack of interaction with their professors, despite the Extension School’s promise of “Harvard faculty and rigorous academics.”

User stories in other fields

User stories aren’t just limited to higher education. Through blogs and online reviews it’s possible to learn about all kinds of products, services, and new ways of doing things. The people telling the stories are often customers and people who practice/experience whatever they happen to be talking about.

Highlighting user stories with a C. diff case study
C. diff case study

One thing I hope to do with my nascent publishing venture is to highlight the user stories of some of my readers. The books are intended to educate people on a variety of mildly complex topics, ranging from digital technologies to science and medicine. Many readers are coming to these topics and have basic questions (“What is LinkedIn” or “What is C. diff“). I have begun to highlight some of the reviews on the book websites, but have also taken the time to talk to readers and highlighting their questions. Then there is the C. diff book, which highlights real C. diff case studies.

The next frontier for such user stories may be video. I have already found one YouTube video about one of my books and I think other people will take this route to share their experiences because it’s so easy to create the videos on a phone or computer.