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John Harvard's Journal

Distance Learning @Harvard.edu

7.1.00

New technologies, changing demographics, and the emergence of richly funded, Internet-based e-learning ventures may lead to serious upheavals in the landscape of higher education. A number of well-known universities, such as Stanford, Chicago, and Columbia, are lining up to share in the promised windfalls of for-profit education by teaming up with companies like Unext.com. But Harvard is emphasizing pedagogic goals, by listening to what its faculty and students want and need.

The result has been distinctively Harvard: a wide range of grass-roots experimentation and innovation across schools and departments. After all, what's best for the Business School will not necessarily work well in the College.

jhj-labcomputers2Assistant provost Daniel Moriarty offers this model for thinking about the relationship between a technology infrastructure and Harvard's mission. "First there is instructional computing, which is the IT [information technology] component of the residential-college experience," says Moriarty. "Personal contact with fellow students and faculty will remain the gold standard in education, so instructional computing aims to enhance and enrich the current academic program." But Harvard's relationship with students doesn't necessarily end with the award of a degree. There is executive education, continuing education, even the lifelong-learning programs that can be part of alumni outreach. Furthermore, Moriarty points out, Harvard's relationship with students can begin even before they arrive in Cambridge: "If the residential experience is at the core of what we do, then think of these other phases as pre- and postresidential." The idea is to create a technology infrastructure that will support all three.

Harvard Business School (HBS) has already implemented just such a model. In late 1995, newly appointed dean Kim Clark announced that by January 1997, he wanted to have the best technology infrastructure of any business school in the country. The school has since created an enterprise-wide system that supports all its activities, from the residential M.B.A. program to executive education and alumni relations.

The HBS intranet is designed so that when students log in, the system recognizes them and, from linked databases, dynamically retrieves information customized to them on a single page. For example, it shows all the latest assignments for the classes they are enrolled in. Students have access to a package of business tools, a searchable video archive going back five years (when Bill Gates, or anyone else, comes to speak, HBS captures that on video), as well as Baker Library.

In alumni relations, HBS is pursuing a goal of lifelong connectedness. "We've been able to put a lot of substance behind this idea," says Gordon professor of business administration Warren McFarlan. "It's one of the byproducts of the platform we put in place for students." Through a website called HBS Working Knowledge, the school has packaged information useful to working professionals, giving alumni access to the same resources that students get. "Still," says McFarlan, "this is stage-one alumni relations, since external bandwidths limit what we can do."

The same platform supports HBS's use of distance education in one of its executive-education offerings. "In our Program for Global Leadership, we're employing a concept that we call 'capture-release-recapture,'" says Robert Fogel, executive director of executive education. Participants spend three and a half weeks together (most recently, in Singapore), work separately for eight, and then reconvene at HBS for a final four weeks. The distance learning takes place during the eight-week break, when the participants, who have formed teams during the initial phase, work t0gether on a group project from their home countries. They communicate with each other via e-mail and "chat," and can access Baker Library's on-line resources. "If they don't have the materials on-line," Fogel says, "those are often available through dynamic database linkages back to the source," which the school accesses under license arrangements with outside providers. (This kind of access is also being offered to HBS alumni for an annual fee.)

But why bother with distance education at all, when the quality of a face-to-face learning experience is so much higher? The answer is that changing demographics and competitive pressures, coupled with the enabling power of new technologies, are dictating changes in the way that education is delivered. "The market we serve is high-end business executives," says Fogel. "What is going to change is how long people want to stay here." As economies around the world transform from industrial- to service-based, says Fogel, "the basis for competition is no longer the best equipment, the best manufacturing, the best electronics--it's the best people and the best brains, and it's how fast they can learn and apply what they are learning."

stillEven as education has become more important, the need to deliver that education to people at their workplace has intensified. "And where there's demand, it will be supplied," says Fogel. "IBM just announced it's going to teach e-commerce courses; Cisco is already. Andersen Consulting has been doing customized executive education for quite a number of years, and A.D. Little has a corporate university for executive education. Right now," Fogel warns, "the water is boiling at the business school, and we need to find a path that makes sense for HBS, because it will be different from that of totally for-profit companies."

Harvard Medical School (HMS) faces similar pressures. The school provides continuing medical education (a legal requirement for physicians) to some 43,000 doctors a year, "the biggest such program in the world at this time," says Paul Levy, executive dean for administration. But with doctors pressed for time, and hospitals pressed for money, he says, "They're less willing to send physicians to a conference somewhere. HMS has been in negotiations with a partner to help create a distance-learning program for delivering continuing medical education. "Unfortunately, the [University's] deans' oversight committee [which has been set up to review such ventures] took so long to approve the plan that our partners decided they wanted to renegotiate," says Levy.

Next door, the Harvard School of Public Health remains the only place at Harvard that uses distance learning in a full-fledged degree program, the master's in health-care management. Students are "generally mid-career physicians in their forties with management as well as clinical responsibilities," says adjunct lecturer on management Donald Bialek. They "find it very difficult to have to move their families and put their careers on hold." The residential one-year degree takes two years at a distance, with two intensive, three-week, summer sessions at the school, and 10 to 15 hours of work a week during the year. Mid-level civil servants seeking training at the Kennedy School of Government face similar barriers.

 

All these schools are responding to the needs of their students and to changes in the education marketplace. Susan Rogers, former chief technology officer at HBS, now a consultant to the provost's office, says that new technologies have allowed the traditional educational model to be broken into its constituent parts: content, content creation, and delivery. Traditionally, the content is knowledge, the creators are the faculty, and delivery is through faculty lectures, class discussion, or laboratory work. "This model can be disaggregated," says Rogers. "Outside the traditional university setting, some organizations will specialize in course content, while others will specialize in the delivery model."

Distance learning is just one kind of delivery, so Rogers prefers the term "distributed learning, which has to do with using technology in education in all kinds of settings, not just at a distance." In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), for example, one of Professor Gregory Nagy's courses uses discussion groups on its website prior to section meetings. Teaching fellow Mary Ebbott reports that subsequent classroom learning takes place at a much higher level. "Students are much more concerned about impressing each other [during web discussions] than they are about impressing their teachers," she says. This kind of collaborative learning would have been much less likely to take place in a large lecture course just five years ago.

"Classroom time is being thought about differently," says Rogers. "Increasingly, it is being reserved for higher-level learning experiences." HBS, for example, is creating prematriculation modules on selected topics for incoming M.B.A. students. The class entering this fall will complete modules on accounting and finance before they even set foot on campus. As Ford professor of business administration Steven Wheelwright, who chairs the M.B.A. program, explained at a University-wide faculty seminar on "The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning" (sponsored by the provost's office), these modules allow HBS to move selected topics out of the residential curriculum, freeing up valuable class time; to create minimum competencies among arriving students; and to teach non-case-method topics in a more effective way. "Students are very motivated between the time we admit them and the time that they get here," Wheelwright reports. "They'll do anything, because they don't want to be behind when they arrive."

Creating these modules requires project and business management, the involvement of HBS faculty, content design, program design, assessment, and platform integration and support. HBS has agreed to buy the accounting module, which cost $450,000 to produce, for all incoming students for the next two years, at $50 per student. The financial risk was assumed by its partners, Harvard Business School Publishing (HBSP, a subsidiary of HBS) and Cognitive Arts, a for-profit program designer specializing in education and assessment. The partners will sell the modules to other educational institutions through HBSP, just as they might sell a textbook.

Ultimately, HBS has no interest in creating this type of material, Wheelwright says: "We don't teach basics to nonfinancial types. That's not our natural strength." Instead, HBS wants to teach business topics at a very high level. So these prematriculation modules are not the arena in which HBS will be competing long-term.

But even at the highest levels where HBS does operate, fierce competition is coming that threatens to erode the influence of business schools like Harvard, warns professor of business administration Clayton Christensen. In his book The Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen explains how "disruptive technologies" and changes in market structure (such as Susan Rogers's disaggregation of content, content creation, and delivery) can unseat leading companies. Some of its lessons apply to higher education. Christensen describes "well-managed companies that have their competitive antennae up, listen absolutely to their customers, invest aggressively in new technologies, and yet still lose market dominance" as new disruptive technologies gain a foothold. These technologies are simpler and cheaper; they promise lower margins, not greater profits; they are typically first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets; and they are typically not useful to a firm's most profitable customers. Witness the effect of personal computers on mainframe sales over the past two decades.

"On-line learning," says Christensen, "has all the characteristics of a disruptive technology." Right now, it is "readily used not in the kinds of sophisticated learning problems that are dealt with at Harvard, but in simple skills-based instruction. The challenge for Harvard is that if we wait until distance-learning technology has become so well developed that it is good enough for us to use effectively in classrooms at HBS, the game will be over, because the people who will have mastered the technology are the ones who began down at the bottom with simple skills-based instruction, and moved up. I think you could extend that across the University," he says. "Distance-learning technologies are best used in skills-based instruction, and that's a much better match for the community colleges than it is for Harvard. And yet it is out of that market that the technology will grow and mature."

At the same time, middle managers in companies are making more decisions. As their need for education grows, the influence of schools that educate only the highest-level executives will wane. Simultaneously, there is a trend toward learning on the job. The professional schools are most likely to be affected, Christensen says. "In medicine, for example, nurses and family practitioners are getting better at dealing with most healthcare, and doctors are becoming less important. Harvard's influence will diminish."

 

Is this an inevitable process? "Harvard is very aggressive and I can't compliment it enough," Christensen says. But to retain its influence, he says, HBS "must become the 'Intel Inside' of executive education."

HBS had not announced any new partnerships as of press time, but to extend its mission of educating top executives and creating new business knowledge, it will probably pursue the content portion of the disaggregated educational model. Dean Kim Clark, speaking at Harvard's Internet and Society Conference in June, suggested that a new kind of hybrid institution, one with nonprofit goals, but operating on a for-profit model, will need to be created. He noted the explosion of the for-profit educational market, but said that if society relies solely on a for-profit model, "we run the risk of underinvesting in some areas of social benefit." This hybrid organization would be nonprofit in its mission, content, and higher purpose, but for-profit in its finance and distribution, he said--a model that sounds much like that already used in the creation of HBS's prematriculation modules.

In sharp contrast, the Law School, through its Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, has been offering an on-line lecture and discussion series free to the public. One symposium this spring had 1,700 participants.

At the Graduate School of Education (GSE), lecturers on education Martha Stone Wiske and David Perkins are using Web-based technologies to create "communities of practice." The challenge for the classroom teachers, ministers of education, school superintendents, and principals who graduate from the GSE is that opportunities for contact and exchange of ideas with researchers and other practicing professionals are limited once they are back in the field. Wiske and Perkins connect educational theory and practice by creating what they call "scaffolded workspaces" with prompts, questions, and access to resources on two websites. One (http://learnweb.harvard.edu/ent) focuses on teaching with new technologies; the other (http://learnweb.harvard.edu/alps) supports the enactment of research-based educational models.

"These on-line learning places," says Wiske, "offer a practical means of professional development for busy educators and engage them in an ongoing, mutually beneficial dialogue with researchers. They enable us to support a collaborative, learner-centered approach to education that many people have been advocating for years, but not finding very feasible in traditional educational environments."

 

Paul Martin, who is Van Vleck professor of pure and applied physics and dean for research and information technology in FAS, is quick to point out that "the best ways to learn are active and interactive, with or without technology. The scarcest resource--faculty members and other staff to lead such activities--isn't easily cloned. That prevents scaling." Furthermore, Martin says, "One of the great benefits of a Harvard education is the variety of approaches and methods of in-class presentation taken by different faculty members." FAS has therefore focused on technologies that maintain pedagogic flexibility. Large parts of many popular and interesting courses now use slides and other materials that students can access from their rooms. Most have been produced with an Instructors Toolkit, a course-website authoring system developed by the Instructional Computing Group. The system also provides instructors with "facebooks" of students in their classes and tools for running on-line student discussion groups.

"An educational program is more than a collection of courses," Martin stresses. "Each student's program is different, but coherent, and each student complements courses with other related academic activities." Using technology, FAS has integrated the academic enterprise by providing every student and faculty member with a dynamically generated and updated portal page (my.harvard.edu) that incorpo-rates individualized calendars containing courses, sections, and relevant events and access to library resources, notices, and pertinent news.

One of the most compelling IT-enabled teaching tools produced in FAS is called Biovisions, a project to create three-dimensional animations of complex biological processes. In an informal experiment, Robert Lue, who created Biovisions and directs undergraduate studies in the biological sciences, tested two separate groups of 12 undergraduates on their ability to interpret experimental data and draw conclusions from it. One group was given 90 minutes with the latest textbook on the subject; the other was given 20 minutes with animations in an interactive interface. The group with the animations scored almost 30 percent higher.

"Biological knowledge is expanding at an incredible rate," says Lue, "but class time is not expanding to match. Instead of making things increasingly superficial in courses, which unfortunately is one of the approaches that could be taken, the idea behind Biovisions is to create teaching tools that will allow you to teach major concepts far more quickly than you could in a standard lecture using overheads or even slides." Lue envisions important applications of this technology among scientists as well. With a tool like this, "You can bring a whole roomful of people up to speed in five or 10 minutes," says Lue, who believes that "this sort of visualization will become a central part of publishing and discussing science."

With this kind of exciting innovation, is distance education a competitive threat to the residential-college program? "What we have going for us in the College," says Martin, "are personal interactions among students and faculty across the board. Even as the technology improves, we will still deliver the best education here." But there is a potential threat. "I don't think it's very likely," he says, "but who can be sure that commercial on-line educational companies won't be in a position to offer star professors financial packages they can't refuse? They may not attract the best students, but we could lose some outstanding teachers." To prevent this, Martin believes the University might provide faculty with opportunities to reach broader audiences.

Provost Harvey Fineberg says that "the fact that educational goals across the University are so wide-ranging" is a primary reason for encouraging experimentation. In June, he announced the creation of two innovation funds totaling $6 million, one awarding grants to projects in instructional computing, the other in distance education. "The technology is dynamic," says Fineberg, "and its capacities continue to change rapidly. Across the University, there is a wide scope of pedagogic purpose. Let's take advantage of this variety to intensively explore what does and does not work." The key to this strategy, he says, is assessment. "Let's systematically learn from our experience by putting a very high premium on communicating the lessons from these different types of electronic media and these ways of deploying tools in teaching and learning."