How Harvard Is Trying to Update the Extension School for the MOOC Age

Digital Learning

How Harvard Is Trying to Update the Extension School for the MOOC Age

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 3, 2018

How Harvard Is Trying to Update the Extension School for the MOOC Age
Hunt Lambert (right) during an EdSurge Live episode.

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

You could call extension schools the original MOOCs. Universities first opened these offshoots more than 100 years ago, and at the time they were innovative—throwing open the campus gates by offering night classes without any admission requirements.

Extension schools were the original attempt by higher education to offer a low-cost version for the non-elite. Thanks to a recent push towards online courses, Harvard University’s Extension School now has more students than the rest of Harvard combined. Well, unless you count the students in MOOCs, those free online courses, which are offered through a different division of the university. Let’s face it, the number of different types of degrees you could get from Harvard is getting confusing, and the same could be said for many other universities as well.

EdSurge recently sat down with the dean of Harvard’s Extension School, Hunt Lambert, to ask him to sort through all these offerings and give his vision of where his school is headed.

Read an abridged version of the conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version on our podcast feed (such as through Apple Podcasts, iTunes or Stitcher). Or watch the interview, which was originally streamed live as part of our EdSurge Live series.

EdSurge: At Harvard's Extension School, you've been increasing the number of online offerings. Yet during that same period, another part of the university, HarvardX, has been running MOOCs, massive open online courses. How do you differentiate what you're doing at the Extension School from MOOCs?

Lambert: The Extension School, as you know, has been active for 109 years now. I think one of our earliest innovations was putting electric light bulbs in our classrooms [so we could teach] in the evenings. And we had radio classes, TV classes, and we ultimately started doing internet classes in 1997, which were really crude.

It's great that Harvard is what it is, but it's insufficient unless it reaches the rest of the world. And so at the Extension School, we are one of the 12 degree-granting entities [within Harvard], and we've been growing it online, as the technology allowed, in 600 online classes this year.

That 600 is up from about 100 when I started five years ago, and 22,000 students will take one or more online classes this year. So we've also become quite big. Last year, we passed the rest of Harvard combined in total students.

HarvardX is a really good contrast because HarvardX's mission is to extend faculty to the whole world, so it's mostly non-credit, over the edX platform. They've produced about 100 MOOCs.

They've had, I think, six million people register for those, so it's a completely different scale. So I think they're two different segments in the market, where they're really trying to extend Harvard's wisdom to the world.

One of the reasons I ask is because it seems like with all the attention in the last few years around MOOCs, the Extension School is now the old legacy player in this same world. What is the future of the Extension School, and not just at Harvard, but elsewhere, in the MOOC era?

If Harvard can do what we do, using technology to extend Harvard to another set of learners, and do it affordably, and make a surplus doing it, then I feel like anybody should. The more we develop the technology, the techniques, and the pedagogy to do it, and the more we give that away, the more the big state schools are empowered. Because the issue, in the United States, is not the 30-odd-thousand students we teach, it's the 30 million that are still excluded from the market. And for the most part, these are people who are plenty smart, but they went to work, they have no way to go to school in the normal pattern, or they got to school, and the model of teaching in the classroom didn't work for them.

Southern New Hampshire has done a phenomenal job bringing those people back into the market. And I would like to see hundreds of public universities replicating what we've done, extending themselves to this additional group of learners. I think it'll help them with their budget, it's eminently doable, and it really matters to the country. And if we can do it, the whole world can do it, and we can get at the two billion, globally, who are excluded from higher ed today.

It seems that at many universities, Extensions Schools have traditionally been an innovator when it comes to online education. Do you see yourself playing that role, or is the Extension School settling into a position where it knows what it wants to do and does it?

If we stop innovating, we're dead. And that's a message for, I think, everybody in higher ed today. So we have innovated, compared to the rest of Harvard, throughout history, not because it was just our mission, but because we had to. When you're trying to educate an adult learner around their work schedule, around their family commitments and make it fit in their life, you have to innovate a great deal in how you serve them, how you support them, and, as technology improved, how you deliver learning to them, at their time, at their place.

And so a couple of the huge innovations we've done, since I've gotten there, and my team has been amazing at this, is we've reinvented teaching method using web conference tools. We call it Helix. It's based on Zoom, and we have done that in a way where we can have a class of 30 people, from anywhere in the world, with the faculty member anywhere in the world, and they teach a live class that many students and faculty are telling us are as intimate as being in the classroom, but we let the student control place, and we even let the faculty member control place, and that method of teaching has grown to 250 classes in three years, and it's working.

You mentioned that Harvard is trying to do these almost contradictory things, of being the most elite, or hard to get into, and also do things like what you work on, of allowing anyone in. It sounds like Harvard has a tough time differentiating the different products you offer.

I think that's a false differentiation. Harvard has 12 degree-granting entities. Each of those schools has their name on their product, the business school, the law school, the divinity school, the design school, the Extension School, and I think most people know the Extension School is the school where you can go if you're a part-time learner, other than a full-time residential program, and it's still Harvard worthy, it's for a different learner, and they often do the exact same courses. And I think it's, now, really required that the great global universities of the future do all of it.

So I was in Miami a few weeks ago, and I had an alumni and student event, and I'm standing there, looking around, and I have a fifteen-year-old young lady I'm talking to. This fifteen-year-old young lady, her entire life has been based on pursuing neurobiology, neurophysiology, neurosciences. And so she's taking classes from the Extension School, because while in high school, she can do that, and she can come to our summer school and do it, with a lab experience. She was standing next to another young lady who was into theoretical physics. That's all she ever wanted to do. She's doing the same thing through us. They're standing next to a 34 year old who's doing one of our graduate certificates, which is stackable into a graduate degree. They're standing next to a 50-year-old school teacher who's using Elisa New's poetry course, and he's taking it and teaching it to his students at the same time. So it's Harvard inside his high school class, for the high schoolers, and him, and I've got a 75-year-old that's a member of our Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, who's in Florida on vacation. And you look at that group of people, and right in front of me is a group with a 60 year age spread that we're teaching, and what struck me in that was they are coming to us one point at a time. What if we thought of that as a continuum?

And you've heard me talk about this term, the 60-year curriculum. For me, that was a perfect illustration of a 60-year curriculum. What if every student that ever touched Harvard, instead of just doing their one-point activity, and then going off into the world, we helped them always be ready for their next civic, social or professional opportunity? What if we could build an engine of analysis and advising, so that we could reach out and say, we just saw on your LinkedIn that you got promoted. Well guess what, people with jobs like that, according to Burning Glass, need these sorts of skills, and we have these products, and there's other people that have other products, and yes, I'm calling them products, that will help you be ready for that, and we just want to remind you that you probably ought to keep going back to school, because all of these jobs are knowledge jobs. Knowledge jobs need more than training, they need more than certification, they need real education, and that's what the Extension School does. So I see a future where we are purposefully helping students, age 15 to 75, always be ready for their next opportunity.

[Audience question] From Arizona State University, what mechanisms or enhancements can you see Harvard adding to its MOOC model to increase access and completion rates for at-risk students, and low-income students?

To try to drive up completion rates of our MOOCs, we broke them up, honestly. A 12 week or 16-week course is a gigantic thing for the average person to do, and so many of ours are now down to three or four weeks, and the completion rates of those modules are much, much higher.

So that's one. Many MOOCs outside of what Harvard does are much more professionally oriented, and that helps completion because people are going in and actually getting something that benefits them directly, at work. Harvard's specialty, as most people know, is in the liberal arts. We have 16 MOOCs related to China alone, and the history and culture of China, so we do this phenomenal work, it is less professionally oriented than many of the other schools, but if you look at MIT's MOOCs, as an example, they get enormous completion rates, particularly around things like their supply-chain management courses that are tied into their micromasters. They've had over 200,000 or 300,000 people start all those courses. They've had about 17,000 finish those courses.

How much do you think employers accept the degrees you offer in your Extension School?

There's a wonderful myth at Harvard that most people come to the Extension School for personal learning, personal enrichment. It's not true. Ninety-six percent of them tell us they're there for professional advancement, and the highest growth programs for us relate to professional advancement. The way that employers look at the degree, honestly, is they know it's a Harvard credential, they know it's not the college, they know it's not the business school or the law school. They're often confused about what it is.

So here's what I say to our learners, and I really believe this. I say first, tell your employer how amazing is it that Harvard makes itself available to a student who can't go there full-time? And secondly, how amazing is it that I can work full-time, and succeed at Harvard rigor courses? And I'd apply that to any school. If you're doing an online course from Arizona State, per the earlier question, the best thing you can say to an employer is, ‘Are you kidding? You hire Arizona State undergrads, well I outperformed them in the same classes, while working full-time, while raising a family. Which is more valuable to you, as an employer?’ And so I think the students who engage in extension type programs and continuing-ed programs are showing their employer, loud and clear, they're willing to spend the time and energy to advance themselves to help their company.

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