Closer to Distance Learning
One-year residency requirement must be flexible to support new educational goals
To investigate distance learning, University President Lawrence H. Summers created a committee composed of professors from Harvard’s various schools. Several committee members recommended the wording change to allow hybrid programs, which combine distance learning with learning on campus and present some interesting and promising possibilities. These programs often attract mid-career professionals, many of whom already have advanced degrees, and it makes sense not to force some professional students to spend an entire year on campus. As an example, University Provost Stephen E. Hyman pointed to the health care management program at the School of Public Health, which often grants degrees to prominent medical doctors.
Of course, these benefits must not threaten the intimate intellectual environment that Harvard provides. The University is immensely enriched by having older graduate students with a diverse range of interests and professional experience living on campus—teaching sections, giving speeches and advising undergrads. To avoid harming this environment, Harvard must cautiously implement its new residency requirements for distance programs. The University should still require its distance learning students to reside on Harvard’s campus for at least a couple of months, if not longer. That way, these professional scholars could not only complete some of their degree program off-campus but also share their perspectives and enhance Harvard’s academic life.
As a leading university, Harvard must continue to be very protective of its name and academics. The University should move cautiously when creating and expanding existing programs into the hybrid format in order to guarantee that all these programs are held to the same intellectual rigor and high standards of current on-campus programs. Fortunately, accompanying this recent change, the University has indicated its intention to move cautiously when expanding distance learning.
Harvard should even be skeptical of offering a complete online educational program. Not only are the benefits that undergrads receive from interacting with older students valuable, but for the graduates, the experience of being on campus and debating subject matters in person with fellow students is an essential part of a Harvard education.
For now, the residency requirement will remain in effect for undergraduates and doctoral candidates. This limitation is good; it will maintain Harvard’s on-campus community and ensure that the crucial experience for undergrads—learning in a supportive, interactive, rigorous academic setting—remains central to the Harvard experience. The administration must now face the challenge of striking the right balance between extending Harvard’s academic opportunities and retaining its own vibrant intellectual campus.