A few weeks ago, Graduate School of Design Professor Spiro N. Pollalis had a guest lecturer in his class. The professor came all the way from Zurich, Switzerland--but his journey was not as long as one might think. He spoke to the class through a network enabling them to see him and him to see them.
"It was like he was in the classroom," Pollalis says. "The technology was completely transparent."
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) may be--for the moment--on the sidelines of online education, but several of Harvard's most prominent graduate and professional schools are ardently pursuing the possibilities of distance learning. Under the leadership of Assistant Provost Daniel D. Moriarty, a University-wide collaborative workgroup is discussing the issues that span Harvard.
In addition to the Graduate School of Design (GSD), Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard Law School (HLS) are among those faculties trying their respective hands at distance learning. The efforts are largely experimental--and officials are making sure that Harvard hands are in charge of the content.
In the process, the very essence of education--how students learn, how professors teach and the mission of higher education is coming under scrutiny and Harvard officials aren't sure where the questions will take them.
HMS, the largest provider of continuing medical education in the world, is posed to undertake a $15- $20 million distance learning initiative.
According to HMS Dean of Continuing Education Dr. Stephen E. Goldfinger, the HMS council of deans has already put the plans through a first round of reviews. Goldfinger says he hopes to secure final approval for the plans from President Neil L. Rudenstine and Provost Harvey V. Fineberg '67 within the next two months.
Following approval, he estimates that, allowing for technology acquisition and faculty recruitment, it would take another six to 12 months to complete.
Thus far, HMS's continuing education programs have been fairly traditional; according to Goldfinger, courses are given mostly in Boston and last one to five days.
"We must ask, 'Are there other ways of reaching physicians in our country?'" says Goldfinger, a member of the collaborative workgroup. "You can't just go up there with one or two programs. ...You want it to be substantial."
Goldfinger says the $15-20 million ballpark cost includes technology, marketing, course design and development. He adds that he hopes revenues will come from subscribers and industry. HMS also has a potential partnership in the works.
Goldfinger expects HMS continuing education to capitalize on the Harvard brand name.
"All content will be tightly controlled by Harvard," he says. "It will be a Harvard site."
The challenge, he says, is living up to the HMS reputation in the new medium.
"Each year a new cohort of young physicians is entering medicine and bringing with them the habits of using the Internet as an important means of learning and communicating," Goldfinger says.
But Goldfinger also says web-based learning presents special challenges. Older physicians are sometimes more reluctant to use new technology. In order to attract an audience, programs must be easy to use.
"No matter where you are, a physician's time is very precious. They don't want to spend eight minutes fumbling into a program," Goldfinger says.
And just because it's online doesn't mean it's interesting.
"A live professor standing in front of a room instead of up on a screen seems to count," he says. "Lots of the [continuing medical education] that's gone online has been print, that's been very dull."
Thus far, online medical education has not been a great success.
"There's lots of [continuing medical education] online but none of it is doing that well," he says. "To me, it's an incredible challenge. Although one approaches it with optimism, it's certainly a venture that may not be as successful as we'd like to see it."
But Goldfinger also says HMS online education could potentially be used for relicensing, which requires continuing education in some states.
Definition and Design
At GSD, the Center of Design Informatics (CDI)--established about two years ago--is the focus of much of the distance learning action.
"We have realized that this is big," says Pollalis, who is also on the workgroup. "We don't know what it is, but we know it's very big."
CDI is currently trying to figure out how people learn best with this new technology. The goal: "a blurred program between real and virtual," Pollalis says.
One example is the course featuring the guest lecturer from Zurich. The first time the professor visited the class, he was physically there. The second time, he was speaking to the class from Switzerland. And the third time, he was back in Cambridge, using teleconferencing to talk his assistants in Zurich through a lab experiment.
"It was such excitement," Pollalis says.
CDI has a Microsoft grant to pursue web-based learning. According to Pollalis, some GSD courses incorporate Web-based education extensively. In addition to efforts that have connected the school to such remote locations as Switzerland, Holland and Spain, Pollalis experiments within the school, lecturing from his office or his home to his class.
The technology wins kudos from third-year design student Julie Walleisa, Pollalis' teaching fellow, who says it provides flexibility for students of different levels. In basic courses with large enrollments and students of varying backgrounds, the technology makes most materials constantly available--including lectures.
"The way that this class is run is that students are really given a lot of choices," she says. "Material can be revisited."
The online materials are augmented with traditional materials for those who want them.
"People think that distance learning means you have a little contact with professors, but the way we've handled it, you can actually have a lot of contact with the professors," she adds.
Although he also praises the technology, Pollalis emphasizes that student needs and not technology should drive distance learning.
"We perceive ourselves to be the leaders in higher education," he says. "That means we have to be proactive, but at the same time, we have to be very thoughtful."
This fall, Pollalis expects the GSD to broaden its offerings. He adds that at this point, GSD is serving its own students.
"I don't believe we need to have everyone in the world taking Harvard courses," he says.
The Berkman Center
HLS is in its third year of experimenting with distance learning, mostly focused on the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. As with many of the other faculties, much of its attention is on continuing education.
This year, the center has made a number of offerings available to the public via the Internet.
"We've basically done them as experimental enterprises to find out how you teach over the web," says Charles R. Nesson, a center co-director who serves on the workgroup.
Nesson, like his counterparts at other schools, is concerned about quality and audience.
"If you just focus on the outside audience, you run the risk of draining
resources and faculty talent away," Nesson says. "It becomes something very much akin to correspondence courses, which frankly have never been a form of education that has had a quality trajectory."
"Serving an audience that competes with our undergraduate degrees doesn't make a lot of sense.... Serving people who have graduated makes a whole lot more sense," he adds.
This year, for the first time, HLS offered official continuing legal education online. One lecture and discussion series including this component was taught by HLS professor Terry Fisher, a co-director of the center. He taught a seven-week offering on intellectual property in cyberspace.
Enrollment was free and open to the public, with the exception of one section for lawyers seeking continuing legal education credit. Students numbered about 1700, and about 20 participated in the special section. About 250 of the students committed to do a certain amount of work. For the remainder of the lecture and discussion series, the work was optional.
Participation included real-time discussions in chat rooms, as well as other activities facilitated by the Internet.
Fisher says the new technology makes even reading interactive, presenting the student with "choice points"--for example, places where the reader must choose what links to follow.
"I regard this as a big advantage," he says. "It takes some getting used to. Some students prefer greater guidance on what's core [and] what's peripheral."
Fisher says he may offer something similar next year. He adds that he is still experimenting. Nesson emphasizes that the online activity must enhance their core mission.
"It's a mistake to think of the Internet as a big device to transmit knowledge from the University out to people," Fisher says. "The Internet shouldn't be thought of like a television. That loses most of its potential."
Upcoming HLS events will use the Web to enhance the experience. On May 1, an event on the Violence Against Women Act will feature a Webcast and interactive programs. That event and others may help to provide materials for future offerings, Nesson said.
Teaching fellows are also learning by helping with continuing legal education offerings.
Students have served as the equivalent of online TFs, facilitating chats.
"Combining the face to face experience with the online experience... has them learning the medium as well as the content," Nesson says.
About two months ago, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles confirmed that he had declined an invitation from Yale, Princeton and Stanford to join a distance learning alliance targeting alumni.
Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) Senior Association Director Terry K. Shaller '72 says he sees the alumni association's role as facilitating the distribution of online content, not creating it.
"We're building on what's already here. We're aware of what Princeton's doing, and Yale's just getting started," says Shaller, who is on the workgroup. "We think of ourselves as the alumni association, as a way for alumni to get to this stuff, rather than inventing it."
He says he sees HAA's website as a potential portal to online content at Harvard--a way to catalogue and capture everything available on the web--but would not specify a time frame for when Harvard could prepare a portal. He cites the Kennedy School of Government's ARCO Forum speeches and the GSE's Askwith Forum as examples.
"I'm a little skeptical about what the market might be for real courses that involve intense commitment time," Shaller says.
HAA's role is not to provide courses for credit or certification, he says.
"Our unique role in this kind of lifelong learning strive is to provide access to ongoing events and lectures... capture this richness that's happening all the time... get it in some kind of digital format," he says.
But, he says, intellectual property rights sometimes create problems for HAA, he notes. For example, some FAS courses are available online--but HAA is not currently seeking to make them available to alumni.
"I think that those are not insoluble problems and we'd love to offer that sort of stuff down the road," he says.
Distance Learning Missions
One thing the distance learning efforts at all the schools have in common: they raise questions about educational mission, appropriate audiences and evolving teaching methods.
FAS Dean for Research and Information Technology Paul C. Martin '52 has been involved in various University discussions of distance learning and opines that the University's mission is not about to change.
But, he adds, "we should never stop experimenting."