Domestic, Private education, Required, University & College - Written by on Monday, August 22, 2011 16:13 - 0 Comments

Harvard Alumni Predict An E-Harvard and Suggest Principles to Guide It

What will e-learning look like at Harvard University? What should it look like? Are those strange questions? Ridiculous questions?
Well, two Harvard alums tackle it head on in a recent column in the Harvard Magazine and the fact they are doing so says a lot about where online learning is headed. Eli M. Noam, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York law school and a former President of the American Civil Liberties Union. They suggest that Harvard, like today’s e-learning, was a radical but logical concept when it started:
HARVARD STARTED AS a small local seminary. Students and faculty got there by foot, boat, or horseback. Information arrived the same way. But in the nineteenth century, transportation and communications improved rapidly and Harvard became a university to the nation. With the arrival of the jet plane, it reached the world. How should the new, powerful means of electronic communication shape Harvard’s scope?

by See Ming-Lee via Flickr under Creative Commons

Strossen and Noam suggest online learning has been the realm of for-profit universities, public universities and second-tier private universities – you’d expect such distinctions from the Harvard alumsn. But they take the question head on:  ”should an elite university such as Harvard extend exclusive Ivy League education beyond campus?” (P.S. I guess this means they don’t consider the elite schools MIT and Carnegie Mellon’s open-source coursework as extending the exclusivity beyond campus?). They believe that Harvard will, undoubtedly, have to move more into online learning:

Inevitably, it will, driven by competition with other institutions and economic pressures to spread high costs across a larger student base. Doing so can also further Harvard’s core mission of offering the best education to the best minds around the world.  Expanding access to Harvard’s courses via communications media would help erode barriers to the free flow of ideas and information, and democratize learning.

But they suggest a set of principles:

  • First, the value of a Harvard degree cannot be diluted. Admission standards for e-students must be at least as rigorous as for Cambridge-based students.
  • Second, any outreach must go both ways. As knowledge grows, it becomes impossible for the University to support specialists in all subjects. A course on, say, medieval Persian poetry might have to be imported online to the handful of interested students, and Harvard would similarly transmit some of its courses to Iran. The University’s role becomes one of quality control and the creation of global consortium relationships with other leading educational institutions.
  • Third, any online education must involve more interaction, not less. Education is more than knowledge transfer. It is also a process of socialization and empowerment through mentoring, “peering,” hands-on experience, and freewheeling exchanges that push intellectual boundaries. In this respect, online education now seems a lesser version of the real thing. But in time the tables will be turned; e-Harvard will need to include well-crafted 3-D lectures by star professors, “virtual worlds” and simulations for skills training, interactive Socratic programs for thinking on one’s feet, and social networking for peer exchanges.
  • Fourth, online and campus-based education must be blended in a “click-and-brick” experience. Online students would have to spend time in Cambridge, even as campus-based students spend significant time elsewhere while still taking Harvard courses online.
  • Fifth, online activity must be justified on educational, not financial, grounds. A quality online curriculum actually costs more than the traditional blackboard-and-chalk method. Furthermore, any expansion to poor countries will have to be affordable there. Together with high selectivity, these factors will check the profitability of most programs.
  • Sixth, a Harvard education should not end at graduation. E-Harvard should add a “lifetime maintenance and upgrade contract” for knowledge and skills. This will lead to diminished distinctions among students, alumni, and instructors.

We agree that the best thing at present for the online education industry is for elite schools to emerge as leaders in online learning. Unfortunately, the biggest schools – like the University of Phoenix – with the most students are not very selective and are not known for high quality. Many programs – like Khan Academy – geared to the masses are free and only worth the knowledge one gains from the Khan videos. And, up till now, the elite schools like MIT have sort of copped out in this realm by just making their curriculum free but often in a raw manner without multimedia features or any kind of guided coursework. That appears to be changing with Stanford University offering an online course this year and others soon to emerge. We leave you with Noam and Strossen’s closing remarks:

In the past, students came to Harvard. In the future, Harvard will come to the students, wherever they are.



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