Virtually Harvard

What will Harvard look like once the Internet has had its way?

Only a very small handful of Harvard undergraduates—those whose life paths were complicated enough to necessitate a five-year school vacation—remember the dark ages of this institution’s history. The year 2000 was, in some sense, Harvard’s latest renaissance, at least from the perspective of perpetual snooze-button smashers who never seem to get up in time for class. In that year, Harvard made official its ambition to get lecture videos online.

There had been forays into the future before—as far back as 1998, Chem 5 (a 9 a.m. class) placed its lecture videos online to praise from both students and faculty, and, apparently, at the time the changes had little effect on attendance. And slightly more ambitious students could always have watched many of their lectures at Lamont library, where taped copies of major classes had been kept on reserve for years.

But digitization holds a special place in 21st century hearts, as well it should: even a Lamont library decked out in comfortable chairs and open 24 hours can’t compete with the possibility of combining digital lecture videos with wireless networking and watching Chem lectures without ever getting out of bed.

The real question, though, is why should we even restrict ourselves to beds here at Harvard? Why not watch lectures poolside in southern California, or from ski lodges in Colorado or cruise ships sailing across the Caribbean?

The past year has turned these admittedly far-fetched possibilities into a more and more reasonable alternative. For one, more classes (and more popular classes, most notably Justice), are being taped in higher and higher quality. While the Justice videos won’t be online this term, they’ll be transmitted over the internet in the months following the course, which means they could become a black-market commodity for particularly enterprising students planning on taking (but skipping) the class next fall.

Not only can we eschew going to class in favor of watching it online, we can now register for classes online, so that if we’re willing to fib on the registration form and risk disciplinary action, the first time our presence is ever really required on campus isn’t until the end of shopping week when we get our study card signed and turn it in. And as of last spring, at the end of term we can now write CUE guide reviews online about all the classes we never went to in person, so that the next crop of people intending to skip them will know which classes are the best ones to miss.

All of this conspires towards a very difficult question. A student who carefully chose his classes to include only those with few exams, optional sections, taped lectures, and the possibility of submitting assignments online, could fulfill almost all of Harvard’s official requirements from Istanbul or Azerbaijan just as well as they could while never leaving his single in the Mather tower.

What do we make of our notion of “university” when we have an institution whose institutional functions are no longer geographically localized? There’s no question that there’s an enormous benefit to being on campus—it allows students to profit from the incredible resources of their classmates and to interact on a personal level with the faculty. These are all academic considerations, but there’s also the fact of Harvard’s already supposedly ailing social scene—one problem with not being on campus is that you don’t get to spend time with your friends.

But it’s certainly also of value to extend the University’s intellectual reach beyond Harvard Yard: for one, illness is no longer nearly as much an impediment to academic success as it might have been 10 years ago. Students can also more conveniently travel to occasional conferences or head home for family holidays without feeling as much pressure over missed work. And it’s possible to imagine incredible ramifications for study abroad: if Harvard’s problem is that we have historically had difficulty trusting other institutions to educate our students, now for the first time we’re starting to have the capacity to educate them ourselves, wherever they may be.

The social benefits are notable as well: Harvard can now share its wealth of world-class resources with a far broader community—not only made up of those who were unfortunate enough to be rejected and forced to go to Yale but also to those unfortunate in a legitimate sense: those unable due to any number of financial or political constraints to take the plunge and devote four solid years of their lives to academia. MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, which takes select MIT classes and makes all of the imporstant materials available for free online, tries to capitalize (in a social, rather than financial, sense) on this idea.

We likely won’t get to pick which parts of the Harvard experience are fundamentally delocalized by technology: progress has a way of nosing in wherever it can make things substantially more convenient—the subtle implications of the changes often going unnoticed until they’ve been observed carefully for quite some time. And further, those implications may in many regards be overwhelmingly positive.

But lest we cave in some sense to the demands of the ever-growing Facebook group which proposes the California Relocation of Harvard University, we ought to recognize that despite how irritating alarm clocks might seem, and despite how unappealing the blustery walk to Maxwell Dworkin might be, there really is something to the buildings and people that make Harvard what it is. And whatever that something is, it seems there’s a pretty good chance it doesn’t easily fit into an Ethernet cable.

Matthew A. Gline ’06 is a physics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.