Online Education, Even At Harvard, Is Inadequate

To the editors:

Re: “Virtual Veritas,” magazine, Apr. 13.

At a recent round-table discussion with students, President Summers pledged to expand the for-credit distance education programs currently offered through the Harvard Extension School. As an alumnus of the Extension School and an adjunct professor at a community college, I have no objection to non-traditional venues of higher education. I also understand and appreciate the educational potential afforded by the Internet. Nevertheless, I must part company with the outgoing President on the issue of Internet education at Harvard.

The offering of Internet courses for university credit provokes a question fundamental to the existence of formal education in the contemporary world: Why do we need formal education at all in a society in which technologies such as the printing press the, Internet, and cable television theoretically enable one to educate oneself? Although one can, of course, learn much through self-education, the process of learning alone in one’s living room or at the reading room of the local public library is fundamentally different from that which one undertakes through formal study at an institution of higher learning.

This fundamental difference is due mostly to the fact that an institution of higher learning provides one with direct and personal exposure to an academic community. Person-to-person interaction within an intellectual environment has long, and rightly, been credited as an indispensable part of a quality university education. During my tenure at Harvard, I learned at least as much, if not more, from discussions with professors and fellow students outside the classroom, in places such as Café Gato Rojo, Café Algiers, and the Science Center’s study rooms, as inside the classroom. Furthermore, the opportunity to personally ask questions of professors and to participate in class discussions inspired in me an enthusiasm for learning that would simply be impossible to duplicate by staring at a computer screen, “interacting” with people that I would probably never actually get to meet.

If Harvard wants to maintain high quality standards in education, both for its own students and as a positive example to the literally thousands of institutions worldwide that look to Harvard as a model of academic excellence, Harvard must make sure that everyone who receives course credit from it does so only after having been immersed to at least some degree in the superb academic environment that lies at the core of our great and noble university.


April 15, 2006