Henry Leitner on the Future of Online Learning at Harvard

Faculty Insight

Henry H. Leitner

Senior Lecturer on Computer Science, Harvard University

Leitner talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about the technological advancements in online education at Harvard.

Loiter discusses the popularity of online education with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast.

Online education has become mainstream. Why so?

The general public has become more comfortable with taking classes online. When we first started offering distance education courses at Harvard Extension School 12 years ago, we restricted the courses to computer science offerings. We knew those students were comfortable with technology and willing to debug issues in the early days. Over the last few years, Internet bandwidth has become more widespread, hardware and software has become more reliable, and students are online a lot.

Harvard Extension School has a history of using technology to educate people.

Part of Harvard Extension School’s mission is to experiment and innovate with teaching technologies that enhance education for adults. An information technology degree candidate from Switzerland exemplifies this goal. He came upon the Extension School after researching different programs and found that the Extension School was the only place he could take classes that worked with his schedule. Even though he is living in Zurich, he stays in regular contact with instructors and feels connected through the online experience.

As technology becomes more widespread, education is reaching people in places it never did before. Plenty of courses are online for free. Coursera and EdX, along with Harvard Extension’s Open Learning Initiative, are engaging in this mission to extend education to everyone. These huge, online courses are known as massively open online courses (MOOCs).

How can Harvard give away its prized assets for free?

There used to be a fear that if prized courses were being offered for free, enrollments in paid online courses would go down. But that has not been the case. Students who are interested in accreditation and interaction with faculty are still enrolling in courses for credit. When students enroll in MOOCs, they get graded in automated ways and don’t have the connection with a teaching assistant or faculty member that they would get when taking a course for credit and being evaluated.

Distance learning is a move toward the democratization of education.

For example, in parts of the world where women aren’t traditionally allowed outside the home, they are now getting a chance at an education. In another example, Harvard President Drew Faust spoke during a trip to India about how an open course from the Harvard School of Public Health has over 9,000 Indians enrolled. About 150 students get together to discuss the coursework. Stories like this make MOOCs relevant to Harvard’s mission.

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