Innovation is the watchword for Harvard as it begins to unveil and bring to life its vision for education at a time when the classroom, the centuries-old center of learning, is in upheaval.
An ongoing capital campaign—launched this fall and set to break global fundraising records—offers Harvard’s flagship school the opportunity to modernize its approach to one of its core missions of teaching and learning amid the rise of virtual education and challenges to conventional classroom practices.
With an emphasis on innovation and technology, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, home of Harvard College, is funneling $150 million toward a priority titled “Leading in Learning.” If brought to fruition, the school’s vision could transform not only the way members of the Harvard community teach and learn, but also the physical spaces they inhabit.
But while campaign showrunners have shared their plans to inject funds into three key areas—the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard’s branch of the online learning platform edX, and the expansion of classroom infrastructure—much about the direction of their vision remains unclear.
Seeking to learn about learning, and ultimately, lead in the increasingly crowded and progressive landscape of higher education, Harvard is planning its vision of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Yet some faculty members question what “innovation” really means, where it will lead FAS, and to what extent these changes will enhance education at a centuries-old institution.
DISRUPTION IN LEARNING
To take center stage in the rapidly evolving field of higher education, Harvard has zeroed in on technology and innovation as a means of diversifying models of learning while carrying on its liberal arts tradition.
The “Leading in Learning” priority represents 6 percent of the FAS’s total $2.5 billion campaign goal. While the school’s other priorities will bolster and expand existing faculty programs, financial aid, and renewal of the undergraduate houses, the “Leading in Learning” initiative, as reflected in its title, is one of Harvard’s most direct attempts to respond to new challenges to its traditional model of education.
“At this moment of disruption and change, Harvard will shape the future of education,” reads a 30-page booklet distributed at the campaign’s launch last October mapping out the school’s vision for the initiative.
With the increasing presence of education-oriented digital technology in the form of online classes, virtual learning applications, and data analysis methods, Harvard is presented with many opportunities to transform education.
At the same time, while many consider other top-rated schools—namely Stanford and other members of the Ivy League—the main challengers to Harvard’s position as the world’s foremost academic institution, it is smaller liberal arts colleges that are pushing the boundaries of teaching and learning, FAS administrators and faculty members say.
“It is true that our challenge is to compete not only with the Stanfords and Yales and Princetons as research universities,” says History and Business School professor and former FAS Dean William C. Kirby. “But also, we hope, to offer students the kind of education that you can also get at Williams, and Amherst, at Carleton and at Oberlin.”
Kirby says he believes students at these colleges are inspired with a sense of excitement about academics that leads more of them, proportionately, to go on to graduate education at the doctoral level than their counterparts at large research universities.
Robert A. Lue, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology professor and faculty director of both HarvardX and the Bok Center, says that to meet this two-pronged challenge, Harvard must focus on supporting the development of teaching and learning techniques as well as strengthening faculty research endeavors.
“What we increasingly realize is that in the same way you can push the envelope in your scholarship, the faculty and colleagues realize you can push the envelope in teaching and learning,” Lue says.
But with competition from these more intimate and undergraduate-oriented institutions, says longtime Sociology professor Howard E. Gardner ’65, Harvard has a chance to look to others for ideas rather than being forced to conceive of solutions from scratch.
“We shouldn’t be too narcissistic and just look at ourselves in the mirror,” Gardner says.
The “Leading in Learning” priority includes investments in programs that foster faculty innovation and the communication of best practices, along with the creation of infrastructure to allow faculty to experiment and teach in novel ways.
FAS Dean Michael D. Smith emphasizes the school’s focus on building and expanding models of learning. These changes, he says, are necessary in part because of the modern skillsets and practices of the students who now populate Harvard’s largest school.
“Ten years from now, I think you’ll see many different kinds of teaching styles [and] learning environments,” Smith says. “You’ll see changes in our physical environment to help support that.”
EXPERIMENTING IN LEARNING
Driven by this mission to learn about learning, the early stages of the campaign have been defined by experimentation and expansion, a trend that worries those seeking articulation of what this change is meant to achieve.
Two of the most prominent initiatives, the two-year-old HarvardX and the Bok Center, are testing out different types of teaching methods and gathering information about how students best learn.
In some courses that are adapted for HarvardX, like Peter L. Galison’s “The Einstein Revolution,” faculty members screen lectures prior to class time, during which students engage with and discuss the material rather than listen to the professor speak. This, often referred to as the “flipped classroom” method, is designed to optimize the time that students spend with their professors in class.
Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Richard M. Losick says that using the flipped classroom model allows students to use class time for what is often referred to as “active learning.”
“There is material you can learn on your own and [you can use] the classroom for delving more deeply into concepts and for discussion about these concepts,” Losick says.
Similarly, the Bok Center encourages Harvard’s teaching staff to adopt new instructional methods and to move away from the traditional practice of what Losick calls the “sage on the stage.”
In March, The Crimson reported that the Bok Center will more than double the size of its 15-person staff and open a number of satellite offices across campus. Campaign literature has stated that funding for the Bok Center will be channeled toward improving “media literacy” among faculty and graduate students, developing the speaking and student engagement skills of College students, and generating and spreading best practices for teaching and learning.
While HarvardX and the Bok Center, the portions of the “Leading in Learning” initiative aimed at testing and honing ideas for new teaching models, have begun to develop, infrastructural changes are still yet to appear on campus.
However, an unofficial document penned by faculty and administrators at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences offers a glimpse into the vision for the new facilities of the school. The writers of the white paper champion variety and dynamism in physical spaces, calling for “curvilinear designs,” “transparent walls,” and “sunlit” spaces that blur the lines between spaces for teaching, research, and socializing.
In addition, FAS officials also plan to use “Leading in Learning” funds to expand the SEAS incubator and finance less clearly defined capital elements like new classrooms and teaching styles.
While FAS campaign literature broadly outlines goals to improve teaching and learning, however, the specific procedures necessary to improve teaching and learning are still unclear to some faculty members, Philosophy professor and chair of the Committee on General Education Edward J. Hall says.
“I do not have the sense that the faculty as a whole feels like, ‘oh, there’s this initiative that we are all implicitly a part of,’” he says. “Whatever the initiative is, it hasn’t been broadcast to the faculty in the way that’s going to have that type of impact.”
According to Hall, the campaign widely broadcasts its emphasis on lofty themes to donors through speeches and literature, but the faculty have yet to hear a cohesive message about how professors and students should interact with each other in and outside of the classroom due to new technology and practices.
"There's a certain vagueness which can probably be attributed to the fact that a lot of the people don't know where the technology is going and in what ways that technology will be applied to teaching and learning," Classics professor Richard F. Thomas said.
“‘Innovation’ carries a clear connotation of change for the better, change in some exciting new direction that’s going to lead us to do something we were doing before in a new and much improved way,” Hall says, referring to terms he has often hear in tandem with the campaign's goals. “If you’re being honest you need to show that what you are doing in the classroom is not merely different than what you had done before, but [that] it's really much more effective in targeting the goals of your class.”
Classics professor Richard F. Thomas agrees, saying that the campaign literature has been less specific than that of the previous campaign on goals related to teaching and learning.
“I think a lot of the language is very vague, abstract, and not very useful in many ways,” he says. “There’s a certain vagueness which can probably be attributed to the fact that a lot of the people don’t know where the technology is going and in what ways that technology will be applied to teaching and learning.”
QUESTIONS IN LEARNING
The campaign literature’s emphasis on the importance of new technologies and innovative learning environments raises concerns beyond the issue of clarity for some. While funds can ensure that touchscreens, mobile whiteboards, and egg-shaped tables find their ways into unconventional classrooms and that lectures are recorded and broadcasted for the entire world to view, some caution that the capital campaign’s touted “innovation” might not be effective and, in some cases, could even negatively impact Harvard education.
Although showrunners envision new classrooms that allow for a broader range of teaching methods, some say that the efficacy of these methods depends on whether Harvard’s teaching staff is prepared to utilize these new spaces and techniques.
“Faculty are the content experts in the material they know and are imparting to students,” Education School Professor Joseph P. Zolner says. “They are not focused on the best ways to impart that knowledge through new forms of media, through new technologies.”
Given their relative lack of awareness of new pedagogical techniques, Zolner says, it is important that faculty members seek out the resources of the Bok Center, which provides training and professional development resources to Harvard teaching staff.
However, Kirby says, senior faculty members across the country rarely go to the teaching centers like the Bok Center for remedial work, though those who teach HarvardX courses have recently utilized the Center’s resources.
Despite increased use of the Bok Center by these senior faculty members, some still question how large the dividends of HarvardX—another of the campaign’s priorities—will be.
Criticizing the administration’s prioritization of HarvardX both inside and out of the capital campaign’s context, a number of faculty members have raised concerns about the special attention the online education platform has recently received.
In May 2013, 58 faculty members wrote a letter to FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, urging him to convene a faculty committee to oversee FAS’s involvement with HarvardX and to help determine if the platform aligns with the school’s educational goals.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that HarvardX is consistent with our commitment to our students on campus, and with our academic mission,” the signatories wrote.
Hall, one of the letter’s signatories, cautions that HarvardX, while with potential benefits, might distract faculty members away from their on campus students.
“It can easily lead to situations where you as a faculty member can fool yourself into thinking you can do something that really counts as teaching on that kind of scale,” he says.
He and others also warn that by asking undergraduates to rely on HarvardX rather than in-person lectures, students’ educational experience might be impaired.
“Any kind of course that you hope will have some kind of transformative effect on the students, it’s just not going to happen when a student takes a course online,” Hall says, explaining that HarvardX materials must be used in tandem with in-class engagement to have any benefit.
As faculty members continue to explore new methods of teaching and capital campaign money is slated to fund further experimentation, Zolner says that it is important to keep in mind the true role of technology in bringing the Harvard education into the 21st century.
Explaining that while it can greatly benefit pedagogy, Zolner says technology in and of itself is not the improvement. “Technology is an infrastructure. It’s not the solution, it’s the means,” he says. “We need to make sure that the technology tail does not end up wagging the teaching-and-learning dog.”
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.
—Staff writer Steven R. Watros can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveWatros.