Campus & Community

Kinescopes, submarines marked early distance efforts

4 min read

Harvard’s Extension School began experiments with distance learning as early as the 1950s, offering courses via educational television.

In the 1960s, the experiments continued, with classes offered via kinescope to U.S. Navy personnel on nuclear submarines.

Another experiment in the 1990s involved using distance education to teach calculus to high school students in areas where there were either not enough students or enough qualified teachers to provide regular classes.

That calculus experiment ultimately didn’t work, according to Henry Leitner, assistant dean for information technology for the Division of Continuing Education and senior lecturer on computer science, because of the lack of qualified tutors on location to help the students with their assignments.

“It’s tough to talk to students about integral signs over e-mail,” Leitner said.

Finally, in 1997, as computers became more powerful and modems faster, the Extension School offered Internet Protocols for credit over the Web as well as in the classroom. The advent of streaming audio and video, coupled with students who were self-selected to be computer-savvy, made the class a good candidate for the Extension School’s latest distance learning experiment.

It worked well enough that last year the school offered five courses, all computer science-related and all for credit, with the capability for students to either come to class or view taped lectures over the Internet. Internet Protocols was offered in distance learning format only.

This year the Extension School is offering 13 courses with an online component, including three that are offered in distance learning format only, Website Development, Environmental Management I, and what is essentially a “rerun” of Internet Protocols, using the same material from the previous year.

About 100 of the 800 students enrolled in those courses consider themselves distance students, with approximately half of those from outside the Boston region.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that, with the current Internet structure, we’re confident enough to expand again next year,” Leitner said.

The Extension School treats distance learning students the same as other students, Leitner said. They have the same homework, the same problem sets, the same exams. Classes are available to be taken for credit and count toward degree programs. The registrar’s office has worked out relationships with colleges and universities nearby the students – who come from as far away as China, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates – to provide supervision for exams.

Leonard Evenchik, director of distance and innovative education at the Division of Continuing Education and the instructor for Internet Protocols, said the public’s thinking has come a long way in the three years since the course was first offered.

Evenchik said he remembers getting a call from a man in Sweden who had heard about the Internet Protocols course but had to be convinced that, first, the class was being offered over the Internet, and, second, that it was really Harvard that was doing it.

“There was a certain amount of ‘Are you serious?’ three years ago,” Evenchik said.

Today, Evenchik said, there’s no difference in either the dropout rate or in performance between distance students and those who attend class.

Students attending Extension School classes over the Internet will see lectures recorded 24 to 36 hours earlier. The Web page is set up so the student can watch the lecturer on the left side of the screen and review text, see slides or other material on the right.

For a student sitting in a classroom, the professor presents a lecture once. For distance learning students, the lecture lasts as long as a student needs it. Students will often stop the lecture at different points, read background material and then start the lecture up again. About 20 percent of non-distance students also use the Internet to review, Evenchik said.

“That ability to review [the lecture] is the common thread [found in distance learning classes] that has emerged in recent years,” Evenchik said.