Affiliates of the Harvard Extension School — which offers over 200 courses each semester that primarily meet via Zoom — shared their experiences with online learning a week after Harvard College students began taking courses on the platform as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Extension School, which offers courses for both in-person and distance learners, has had a long history of using online teaching platforms, beginning with a lecture capture system in 1997. Since then, as its reach and size has expanded, the Extension School has shuffled through multiple platforms before deciding on Zoom.
“In 2016, we switched to Zoom, and it really was a game changer,” said Adrienne Phelps-Coco, director of faculty development at the Extension School. “What Zoom really allows is for your class to connect as if you were in the classroom, in ways that end up feeling very natural once you settle into it a little bit.”
Due to their familiarity with the technology, Extension School administrators were contacted early in the discussion about COVID-19 contingency plans. The University began discussions about the technology in early March, recommending all faculty familiarize themselves with the platform. On March 10, the University announced that all courses would be transitioned online for the remainder of the semester.
Henry H. Leitner — who serves as chief innovation officer and interim dean of the Division of Continuing Education — said he was “contacted immediately” by Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Dustin Tingley to help the University with the transition.
“Adrienne and a couple of other people here sort of canvassed our existing experienced faculty and teaching assistants who have been teaching online through Zoom with conferencing for some time to ask if any of them would be interested in volunteering to assist,” Leitner said.
Given its more extensive use of Zoom, the Extension School has established a strong set of resources for adapting to distance-based learning, such as an instructional technology help center. Furthermore, Extension School Zoom courses have also been adapted to deliver quality education across the medium.
“We limited enrollment in Zoom-based courses to around 45,” Leitner said. “As a faculty member, if you really want to be able to see everybody that’s in the class and be able to actually interact with the students, it’s really difficult when you get beyond that.”
Claudia C. Batz, a third year Extension School student, said it took some adjustment to familiarize herself with the Zoom platform. Over time, however, she said she got used to the technology and was able to get more out of her coursework.
“When you first start, it’s really awkward and you’re just struggling with the technology,” Batz said. “Once you get used to it, you become really solid.”
“I really think that I get more out of each class because I'm not worrying about the technology,” she added.
Batz said she hopes this period of University-wide online learning will make the “validity” of remote education at the Extension School more clear to University administrators and change the way Extension School coursework is viewed.
“[Online coursework] being the situation that the rest of the University is in, that should also reflect, I think, on the work that we're doing with the Extension School,” she said.
Past efforts from Extension School students to change the name of their degree – which currently appears as "in Extension Studies" on their diplomas – received pushback in 2016. In November, former Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Huntington D. Lambert said he agrees that Extension School degrees should be rephrased.
In the wake of the entire University’s transition to online learning, Extension School affiliates said they hope that the rest of the University will understand their learning experience.
“It’s really good in terms of collaboration and cohesiveness for all students at Harvard to see, what is it like to learn in a dynamic classroom environment?” Kenny M. Marshall, a student at the Extension School, said. “In terms of legitimization, hopefully they see the reason why the Extension School is becoming more popular and more in demand.”
Phelps-Coco shared the sentiment.
“In terms of online learning in general, there is a lot of fear of the unknown,” she said. “For everyone, for faculty, for students. And now this will not be unknown to anyone anymore.”
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