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As Harvard Extension School Increasingly Shifts Online, Students, Faculty Grapple With the Change

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When former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, class of 1877, created the Department of University Extension in February 1910, he envisioned an avenue for freely accessible public education, initially made available to Boston locals.

“The plan consists of giving as far as possible to the public, without charge, some of the general courses given at Harvard, especially those open to freshmen,” he said in a 1908 statement preceding the establishment of today’s Harvard Extension School.

Over the years — and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic — HES’ mission of access has increasingly shifted online, opening up classes to students not located on Harvard’s campus, including those abroad.

June C. Erlick, the publications director at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies who has taught journalism at HES for twenty years, said her experience as an instructor has changed throughout her time at HES.

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“I feel that my classes are much more diverse and much more international since I began teaching,” she said.

“It’s really exciting to see a cohort of people who often are really enough stimulated and interested that they will get up at five in the morning or seven in the morning to go to class because they are in different time zones,” she said.

But with the changes in the school’s pedagogy, some affiliates said it has impacted their experience in the classroom — raising questions about tradeoffs between online learning and the core aspects of an in-person education.

Not the ‘Typical Pathways’

It was not until February 1910 that, with a pro bono publico philosophy, Lowell and the Board of Overseers sought an expansion of public access to education and approved the creation of the Department of University Extension. The newly established department was to be administered under the authority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and would start granting, from that moment onwards, the degree of Associate in Arts.

Today, the Harvard Extension School’s official mission entails “the creation of new knowledge and the preservation of academic freedoms.” It grants both master’s and bachelor’s degrees of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies.

Their commitment to education is detailed on their website. “We uphold the great liberal arts tradition, which challenges students to think deeply and critically — an asset in any pursuit,” it reads.

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For faculty members and students, maintaining this commitment is of utmost importance.

“I see the Extension School as a place where people who didn’t happen to find themselves in life on the typical pathways to Harvard’s residential campus gain access to the amazing educational resources of our university,” Jeff Wilson, the instructional design lead for the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, wrote in an emailed statement.

Emina Dedic, president of the Harvard Extension Student Association, voiced a similar sentiment, saying that “the HES mission is to give an elite education to students who might otherwise not have had access to it.”

‘Changing Pedagogy’

The Harvard Extension School has undergone numerous changes throughout the years in order to fulfill its mission of providing a widely accessible Ivy League education.

Most notably, students and faculty seem to feel the impacts of an increasing shift towards online education, reduced on-campus requirements, and efforts to expand HES internationally.

But some faculty members, like Laura B. Roberts ’74, who teaches Museum Studies at HES, said they were not so fond of this change, particularly of the asynchronous component of online learning.

“Because it’s changing pedagogy, I firmly believe that it’s not a productive change for the effectiveness of the instruction and the learning,” Roberts said.

HES student Alia Thobani conveyed her appreciation of the push toward a more globalized network of students at HES and shared how it connects to her career.

“A lot of my classes are filled with people from around the world, which is amazing, because you get to learn a wealth of information,” she said.

Other students noted how this shift was challenging due to several factors that directly impacted their experience at HES.

“You get a lot of social loafing when there’s 40 people on the Zoom call than you would when they’re actually in the classroom with the professor in front of them,” said Kyle Breünlin, an ALM student at HES.

Breünlin additionally expressed concerns over his ability to network with other students in an online setting.

“Communication in general is a challenge. But doing so virtually is even worse,” he said.

‘Non-traditional’ Learning

The experience at HES represents a larger conversation around accessibility and equitability in higher education.

Richard J. Weissbourd, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, noted in an interview that “all of the selective colleges, and particularly the selective colleges that have money should be piloting different kinds of online experiences as an accessibility issue and an equity issue.”

To some, increasing accessibility might suggest that an increase in student population might follow. Such a phenomenon may manifest differently at various schools, particularly when looking at elite universities such as Harvard.

Weissbourd said there could be a tension between maintaining the Harvard “brand” and making strides in increasing accessibility in higher education.

“As a brand issue, I don’t think highly selective colleges want triple in size,” Weissbourd said. “But, you know, they could double in size, they could accept 8 percent of their applicants, not 4 percent. Or 10 instead of five, and I don’t think it would hurt their brand.”

There also exists a growing sentiment that HES exists not only for students considered to be taking non-traditional pathways but also to fulfill an increasing need for continued adult learning.

Kathryn Tinker, a potential ALM degree candidate at HES, highlighted the importance of adult learning and the necessary flexibility for working adults.

“Within our society, we’re still lacking the mental frameworks for where to put adult learning. There is gradually more acceptance that lifelong learning is needed,” Tinker said. “The world is changing too rapidly to rely on what you learned and graduated with at 22.”

“Harvard Extension School helps fill that need of providing an incredibly flexible program for adult learners looking to make a career transition, but unwilling to commit to a couple of years in one geographic location and taking on significant debt load,” Tinker added.

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Thobani also pointed to who was engaging with the courses.

“A lot of people taking these courses are working professionals,” she said. “So being in a classroom setting is very difficult.”

According to Tinker, another draw of HES for international students in particular is the power of the Harvard name.

“A degree from Harvard helps me with visa applications anywhere in the world,” Tinker said. “So that’s something none of my U.S. classmates would be thinking about.”

Preserving a ‘Niche Quality’

However, some expressed concerns that expanding the student population online might impact the nature of HES, particularly as it pertains to the classroom experience.

In an interview, Roberts noted shifts in the composition of her classroom.

“Now I have a national and international student population,” Roberts said. “I think that’s quite deliberate on Harvard’s part, even before Covid. This is an international brand and Extension is very much a money-making operation. So why limit your market to Greater Boston when you can sell these courses internationally?”

Despite sharing the sentiment of the net positive of greater diversity, Roberts noted larger classes make a “different experience.”

“Not all the people that I teach with like that,” Roberts said.

Rachel Ackerman, an ALB student at HES, noted similar drawbacks due to the compounded effects of bigger classes and courses moving increasingly to an asynchronous format.

“It’s still highly competitive, but I’m not sure if it has that same sort of niche quality that it used to have,” Ackerman said.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, the Division of Continuing Education, which operates HES, asserted its commitment to providing an equitable education.

“Quality and rigor are at the heart of every Extension School course and program, and HES continually strives to meet or exceed our standards and fulfill the educational needs of our students,” the division wrote.

Though concerns do exist about the effects of HES expansion, HES affiliates seem to feel that HES still greatly aids students taking non-traditional pathways.

“The goal for the Extension School was always to give opportunity for non-traditional students or working professionals to access courses,” Thobani said. “I think it’s fulfilling that very, very well.”

—Staff writer Kirsten Agbenyega can be reached at kirsten.agbenyega@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Threads @kirstena006.

—Staff writer Lenny R. Pische can be reached at lenny.pische@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @lenny_787 or on Threads @lenny.787.

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