At Conference, Top Admins Weigh Ups, Downs of Virtual Education

UPDATED: September 17, 2014, at 12:30 a.m.

Despite voicing concerns about the prospects of blending online courseware and in-person teaching, Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Peter K. Bol expressed cautious optimism for new technology’s potential in higher education during a panel discussion at the annual Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference on Tuesday.

“We face...a perfect storm of problems and a perfect storm of opportunities," Bol said of the present moment.

He noted that while the introduction of blended learning courses at Harvard came with declines in rigorous note-taking in class, attendance, and time spent working outside of class, the pedagogical experiments generated widespread interest among faculty, paving the way for further experimentation.

Bol’s comments echoed an analysis of four courses that integrated HarvardX online material with face-to-face teaching in the classroom, employing what educational professionals call a “flipped-classroom” approach. The analysis and subsequent report found that student satisfaction with the pilot courses was mixed, though the report included recommendations for improving the next batch of blended learning courses.

Bol’s focus on undergraduate education at Harvard was complemented by fellow panelists, who presented varied perspectives on the education of teachers, pedagogy at small liberal arts colleges, and adult education.

The panel, titled “Institutional Adaptation Pt. II,” was moderated by former Harvard Corporation member Robert D. Reischauer ’63 and featured Bates College President A. Clayton Spencer, Dean of the Division of Continuing Education Huntington D. Lambert, Graduate School of Education Dean James E. Ryan, and Bol. The all-day conference took place at the Law School.

Throughout the afternoon session, members of the panel answered questions on the value of technological innovation and experimentation in their field, as well as the challenges of implementing technology in the classroom.

Ryan raised concern over a lack of training in technological literacy and virtual education for teachers, particularly for K-12 teachers, at his school and others.

“We have not done enough in terms of pre-service or professional development to enable teachers to take advantage of the learning technologies that exist,” he said.

Responding to a question from Reischauer, Lambert argued that in developing online education tools, Harvard should give high priority to community service and improving accessibility to Harvard’s intellectual resources.

“One hundred and four years ago, President [Abbott Lawrence] Lowell founded the Extension School,” Lambert said. “A course cost two bushels of wheat, but the key insight was Harvard should be making its faculty and its knowledge available to the local community of Cambridge and Boston.”

Bol, who spoke after Lambert, stressed the “tensions” the University faces in developing online courseware given limited resources and the intensive demands of production.

“Free doesn’t sustain, right?” Bol asked. “A little bit from a lot of people makes education more affordable for everybody.”

The annual conference, named for its theme, “Engagement and Distance,” also included remarks from University President Drew G. Faust and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, a panel on adapting technology and research to the classroom environment, a series of breakout sessions, and presentations on educational research findings.

—Staff writer Michael V. Rothberg can be reached at mrothberg@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mvrothberg.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: September 17, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the organization sponsoring Tuesday's conference. In fact, it was the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning.

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