Expanding Education

Harvard’s initiatives toward online book lending and education are steps in the right direction

Libraries and education change slowly. The professor sitting on the fourth floor of Widener does essentially the same thing that his counterpart did in the second century B.C. in the Library of Alexandria. Sections are taught using variations on the method Socrates used, and Harvard, as a 375-year-old institution, functions essentially the same way now that it did when it was the College at Newtowne. Over the past few years, however, things have been evolving behind the scenes. This year, many of those changes entered the public forum. Harvard has felt the pressure from its peer institutions to become more of a global presence and to expand its reach.

While Yale has partnered with the National University of Singapore in what was a controversial move, due in large part to the perceived incompatibility between some of Singapore’s laws and the ethos of Yale, Harvard has focused the bull’s share of its efforts in cyberspace.

Harvard has attempted over the course of the last year, more seriously than before, to use the Internet to make its prodigious resources more widely available. These changes seem likely to benefit at least some members of the wider public unaffiliated with the University, as well as those of us taking classes on campus.

Harvard’s library system began digitizing its collections in partnership with Google in 2005 in an effort to make its volumes with expired copyrights available to the larger public, a partnership that fell through in 2011 after disputes over Google’s right to scan library volumes still under copyright. These efforts will be reinvigorated, as University officials announced in April that it planned to digitize 12 million volumes as part of the Digital Public Library of America, a project chaired by John G. Palfrey ’94 and with University Librarian Robert C. Darnton ’60 as a director, which aims to digitize every book in the world.

One of Harvard’s most important and increasingly costly resources is its massive library system, and the DPLA will hopefully alleviate some of the expenses associated with the system while allowing Harvard to share its collections with the world beyond its gates.

On the classroom instruction front, Harvard began attempts to open its lectures to public observers on the internet and television in 2009, when a taped version of Michael J. Sandel’s popular class Justice aired in a 12-part series both online and on Boston-based television station WBGH. This change to education was embraced by much of the Harvard community as a step toward a 21st century Harvard that would be able to expand its influence beyond its traditional student body.

Harvard, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, revealed plans this month to create an online education portal named edX. The administration announced that the portal will allow people around the world to take Harvard courses free of charge. As an improvement over previous forays into online education, edX is intended to enable students to interact with other students and educational components, including problem sets and exams. Although the democratization of high-quality education through initiatives such as edX is commendable, we are wary of the potential to gain a certificate from such an initiative, as online learning cannot replace the traditional classroom environment.

The ability to export coursework effectively through an online medium is an exciting new development for Harvard. Though many of the specifics of the program have not yet been disclosed, an initiative akin to a more developed version of MIT’s open courseware is an excellent opportunity to make world-class educational materials available to individuals who are motivated to enrich themselves academically for personal gain. Additionally, increasing access to courses in specialized, narrow fields to individuals outside the University will propagate further interest in study in areas of focus that are, due to the sheer number of specialists, limited to a select few locations.

Yet along with the enormous potential for learning through edX, there is a natural desire to have some sort of certification of that learning. Harvard has stipulated that, for an as-yet-unnamed price, it will provide a special Harvardx certificate of completion of coursework to people who enroll in edX classes. While the desire to provide some sort of validation is completely understandable—very few people elect to take a course simply out of intellectual curiosity—we fear that because of Harvard’s brandname there is a high potential that this sort of credit will be sought for the wrong reasons. A Harvard degree—or a Harvardx certificate, in this case, as a lesser representation of the same credentials—is only valuable so long as the accomplishments required to get it are sufficiently valuable themselves. As soon as Harvard begins handing out credentials that, although very different from Harvard degrees, seem somehow similar, we run the danger of diminishing the gravity of what we have been doing for a long time in favor of the novelty of something new.

Moreover, there is value to be gained from a traditional classroom environment that cannot transfer into online learning. In a traditional classroom setting, students have in-person interactions with the professor, teaching assistants, and fellow students that cannot be translated onto the Internet. Although students in an online setting can listen to and absorb material from a lecture, they lack the same freedom to interrupt the professor with questions or to attend office hours after class. Further, there is no similar accountability to that which exists in a traditional environment; students who slack off, doze off during lectures or watch YouTube videos with the professor on mute are not monitored in the same way. Ultimately, the in-person interactions that shape a Harvard experience cannot be mass-produced.

As stirring as it is to be able to watch these changes begin and to observe these plans take shape, the potential benefits of these developments are even more exciting. But a note of caution must be struck—with the potential to redefine many of the basic tenets of a modern education, Harvard needs to protect what it has been doing for 375 years from being devalued by its new experiments. While Harvard arguably has a duty to provide its educational resources to as many people as possible, there shouldn’t be “levels” of a Harvard education, and a Harvardx certificate cannot be allowed to cheapen a Harvard University degree. University officials stressed that plans are still largely in the development stage, and we are glad they decided to roll out what they had for public review. Much has to be added, while some should be discarded. As Harvard’s online infrastructure develops, the University has proven itself once more to be a leader in education worldwide.