Dean Lambert on Student Success

Dean Lambert

In the year since he became dean of the Harvard Division of Continuing Education (DCE), Huntington Lambert has talked a lot about student success. At town halls, in brown bag talks, and in conversations in the halls of 51 Brattle Street, he’s shared a vision that places student success clearly at the center of everything we do. “When I use the word centered, I really mean centered,” he says. “It is more than a decision criteria: it is a prerequisite for everything we do.” 

In the following Q&A, Dean Lambert provides a window into his vision for Harvard Extension School and his expectations for the future of higher education.

Interviewed by Leslie Helmuth

How is the division evolving to more fully help students achieve their goals?

To help our students succeed, we’re going to assume that we excel at teaching and the technology of teaching. 

But students learn in different ways. So we’re not locking ourselves into one teaching mode. We’ll continue to offer full-semester courses on campus in the evening. We’ll have intensive weekend hybrids, week-long sessions, and the video lecture capture that forms many of our online courses today. Eventually, we’ll also offer active-mastery courses online. What we won’t do is offer online courses like a MOOC, where you simply sit and consume. 

Our commitment to student success means we will ask each student how he or she defines success and work with the individual to continuously refine that. Then we’ll help students find which type of course in which mode will help them achieve that success. 

We’ll track students’ progress toward success and communicate it with them. And that will all be done by human beings—not machines.

So when you’re a student here, early on you’ll have an enrollment coach who can help you get started. If you’re interested in a degree program, you’ll be able to connect with an admissions advisor, then a program advisor as you work your way through the program. These individuals are going to guide you as much as or as little as you need to achieve your success.

How does technology play into this success model?

To satisfy varying student needs we need to be able to host materials from many learning platforms. We are implementing Canvas, a learning management tool, to provide students with a common look and feel across courses. Through Canvas, we will be able to integrate electronic textbooks, learning tools, and course content from edX and Harvard Business School’s HBX.

We’ll also have a platform that will enable us to track student progress so that we can provide the support they need to reach their goals. 

We’ve figured out how to do all of this at a very low price. We probably won’t be the lowest price long term. In fact, for 2014–15, we’ve had to increase tuition to fund our innovation, technology, and student service initiatives.

What I can promise is that we’ll always be priced competitively. To help students succeed, we must remain affordable. It is core to our mission.

What are the biggest challenges you see facing adult learners today? And what can we do to address these challenges?

As we design everything we do to help adult part-time learners succeed, we must work to understand these students’ challenges and needs. 

I have my own appreciation for these challenges. For 13 years I taught two courses at night, worked full time, and raised a family. And, when I was ages 10 to 14 my mom completed her undergraduate degree at the Harvard Extension School. 

Most of our students are here for between three and seven years. And I know what they go through because I went through it. It’s about the same load to teach as it is to take a course. I also understand the family impact. I was resentful when my mom left to go back to school. But now, I am just very proud.  

Adult part-time learners have a lot to balance. Factors like business trips, special projects, or a new job may compete for their time and attention. Then there are family commitments: sometimes a kid breaks a leg; sometimes somebody gets sick. 

We need to help students stay motivated through these challenges because their success means getting their educational goal completed, not getting their educational goal completed on a particular day. 

If we can help students stay on the path toward a degree and keep our prices low enough that they can take on minimal debt while doing that, that’s what we want to do.

What are some innovations in higher education that you find compelling?

Harvard Business School has just launched its HBX CORe offering. The school used the case teaching method as its guide in building online active learning capability. 

In the case method, it is assumed students arrive prepared. In class, faculty merely facilitate, guiding student discussion to any possible conclusion. The students then come to see if they are right or wrong. 

To replicate this online, HBX starts with the social construct of the case method, then adds the content. 

I think this approach may be the next level of online learning. By necessity, it demands mastery of the material, which occurs through online learning and pop quizzes. Then when a group reaches mastery, the cases open for discussion for that group. Only when a discussion reaches the right points does the next segment become available. 

This is just one example of online improving the quality of teaching and learning. MOOCs and e-text books are teaching us many others. 

Bringing online capability into the classroom using various flipped classroom techniques will help launch a wave of learning innovation not seen since the 1801 use of the blackboard in teaching. 

The overriding theme here is active learning. I predict that online will over time prove better than classroom lectures, on average, because it allows the teacher to manage active engaged learning better than in the classroom. That said, online with in-person experiences tailored to the material is likely to be the best of all.  

Can you share a few interactions with students you’ve found inspiring?

Over the past year, what I’ve seen is just inspiring. Something about what we do and how we do it—and delivering on the Harvard promise—attracts the most amazing students. When these students succeed, I see such overwhelming emotion. Not just from our students but also their children and parents, their faculty and our staff. By the end of the programs, most can see how profoundly they have changed and how these changes make them better people. 

For example, I’ve spent time with students in our Sustainability and Environmental Management Program and attended presentations of their capstone projects. These are full-time working adults who’ve been able to take their passion, apply it, complete their capstone project, and do something remarkable for themselves, their companies, and the world. Some of those projects are potentially world-changing projects.

I see this in our certificate students and individual course takers as well. Most of our students just want one course. They choose that one course according to what they really want to learn—be that later in life when they want to come back to study Shakespeare and poetry, or in their professional years when they need to learn a new computing approach or modernize their thinking about application development. 

This past year I was lucky enough to be able to give my mother her Bachelor of Liberal Arts diploma. She earned it long ago when I was 14 and resented mom being gone. Then I myself taught in the evening for 14 years while helping raise a family and working full time. Finally the circle closed at graduation where my mother’s pride and her kid’s pride shined out as I handed her the diploma.    

We’re lucky: because we’re Harvard, we attract people who want to have their lives changed. They arrive ready to do the work—and it is hard work. I won’t pretend: one of the key differences between us and many other schools is that we’re flat-out harder. No apologies for that. 

But if you engage in the work, you can do it. For me, it’s wonderful to see our students grow and best of all when I get to congratulate them on their success.  

What excites you the most about the future of education and your work here at Harvard? 

I think the most exciting thing for the division is that we have proven that lecture teaching scales. The MOOCs have shown us that you can indeed teach to an enormous audience. In David Malan’s CS50x course this past year, there were 250,000 students. 

We don’t yet know whether learning scales. But we’re learning an awful lot about that. 

We do know that if the United States wants to stay at the same globally competitive level it is today, we have to lead the world in the knowledge economy. 

There are 20 million adults out there today who need more education to participate in that knowledge economy. Twenty million! That’s the United States alone. There are two billion globally. 

What is to me so profound is our commitment to helping lead the charge of enabling people to embrace lifelong learning on their terms. If the next generation is going to solve the problems this generation has created, it’s going to take incredible effort. Harvard can only serve a tiny piece of that.  

We aim to prove that it’s possible to provide high quality higher education globally at low cost. By setting this example, we can help others do the same.

Together, we’ll make the world a better place.