Campus & Community

New funding helps University reach out

8 min read
This advertisement for Soapine is an example of early advertising efforts conducted in the 1800s via trade cards. About 1,000 trade cards in the Baker Library’s collection are being copied in a digital format as part of the Library Digital Initiative.

The technological revolution has spurred an array of educational changes that are modifying how students and instructors interact in a traditional classroom setting and creating new stay-at-home students for whom education is an Internet connection and a mouse-click away.

The creative use of technology in education has always been encouraged at Harvard, and University officials are collaborating with its schools and departments to establish principles to guide further developments.

Those developments may include new initiatives to use the Internet and distance learning technology to provide components of a Harvard education to more students and to reach out to Harvard alumni. They could also include the enhanced use of instructional technology, a term that describes the use of new technology, both in distance learning and in a more traditional, classroom-centered student-teacher relationship.

To further encourage the use of technology in teaching, the University has created two new funds, the Provost’s Fund for On-line Innovations in Instructional Technology and the Provost’s Fund for Distance Learning. Together, the two funds will distribute $7 million over four years to promote innovations in distance learning and instructional technology.

“Information technology offers a sea of promise for education, and a measure of risk. As technology advances, we must be prepared to recognize new possibilities, to evaluate, to adopt what makes sense, and to discard what fails to work,” said Harvard Provost Harvey Fineberg. “We will do well if we can take full advantage of electronic technology over time in a way that advances scholarship and learning, strengthens the academic community, and remains true to the values of higher education.”

Recommended by the Harvard Academic Computing Committee, the funds will make one-year grants of up to $50,000 available for instructional technology and grants for distance learning of up to $250,000, with the possibility of additional transitional funding.

The Harvard Academic Computing Committee, or HACC, chaired by Fineberg and Assistant Provost Daniel Moriarty, was established two years ago to consider issues surrounding academic computing. About a year ago, they turned their attention to distance learning and instructional technology, deciding they should focus on efforts that would expand current Harvard programs.

“The HACC has provided a rich forum to bring leading thinkers from across the University together to consider future opportunities in on-line learning and to share current best practices within Harvard,” Moriarty said.

Complementing the Committee’s work is the Deans’ Distance Learning Working Group, made up of deans from Harvard’s Schools, which advises the President, Provost and Corporation on proposed new ventures and other issues related to distance learning.

The Deans’ group is currently considering plans by Harvard Medical School to extend its continuing education program for doctors, through which some 40,000 doctors update their skills, through the Internet.

Grants for individuals, schools

The instructional technology grants would be available to faculty members and to school-based information technology support groups that are interested in using information technology as a tool for innovations in teaching and learning. The distance learning grants will be directed toward School or cross-School initiatives that extend the reach of current academic programs by incorporating into them a component of distance learning.

Distance learning, as the name implies, occurs in cases where the instructor and student are widely separated, such as when a student in India takes a computer science course through Harvard’s Extension School.

“From my point of view, these funds are wonderful initiatives and they’re intended ideally to support collaborative efforts between schools,” said Weld Professor of Law Charles Nesson, a member of the Harvard Academic Computing Committee.

John Willett, academic dean at the Graduate School of Education and another member of the Committee, said the funds will work to promote activity on both the level of the individual and of the School.

“The new Provost’s Innovation Funds are a critical element in the fostering of innovations in distance learning around the university,” Willett said. “The fact that the Provost has worked to make the funds available sends an important message to the University, a message which says that Harvard truly values this kind of innovation.”

With technology saturating our society – especially research institutions such as Harvard – Harvard Schools, departments, and individual instructors have already begun their own experiments with both distance learning and instructional technology.

In fact, some uses are already so accepted and widespread, such as the use of e-mail in communications between instructor and student, that they are well beyond the “experimental” stage.

The use of instructional technology at Harvard today runs the gamut from traditional lectures and textbooks to the online lectures of Spiro Pollalis, professor of design technology and management at the Graduate School of Design. Pollalis has students watch his videotaped lectures over the Web before class so they can spend valuable face-to-face time discussing the subject, rather than going over the basics.

Law School student Alex Macgillivray helped create a study tool for Professor Jonathan Zittrain’s Internet and Society class dubbed the “Rotisserie. Via e-mail, the Rotisserie prompts students to check the class web site, where a controversial situation is described. Students are asked to take a stand on the subject and their arguments are collected and then sent to another student, who is asked to rebut the first student’s views.

“For second and third year law school classes, the challenge is to motivate . . . students to participate and have done the reading,” Macgillivray said. “Two cranks of the rotisserie makes sure that every student has answered a question and critiqued another student’s answer before class.”

Harvard’s libraries are also taking advantage of new technology. The Digital Library Initiative is a multi-year effort to obtain new materials and to convert selected older ones in a digital format. As the project progresses, more library resources – from databases to electronic journals to artwork and photography – will become available over the Internet.

Opportunities abound

Today, streaming audio and video and make it possible for students to peer into classrooms miles– and even continents– away while the class is happening.

For those not yet blessed by the miracle of a high-capacity, broadband Internet connection, instructional materials and assignments can be downloaded into a home computer more slowly. Once downloaded, lectures can be viewed, tests taken, and work shipped to the instructor via the same telephone line.

A new generation of educational entrepreneurs has been quick to see the potential in the new technology. As Harvard was adapting technology to its own uses, entrepreneurs were dreaming up new virtual universities, hoping to recruit thousands of students for whom scheduling, finances, or other concerns make attending more traditional classes impossible.

Some of the new ventures are promoting entirely new, online universities, while others are seeking to partner with existing institutions that can bring a reputation for educational excellence into a new arena.

Harvard has been approached by several new ventures, including UNext, a venture involving former junk-bond financier Michael Milken. UNext has already lured Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, the Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics into its online institution.

Similarly, Harvard has been invited to join in a discussion with Yale, Princeton and Stanford to create a distance learning alliance aimed at alumni of the four schools.

Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba, director of the Harvard University Library and a member of the Harvard Academic Computing Committee said though instructional technology and distance learning are evolving rapidly, he believes there really isn’t any hurry to join a new online organization.

“People say it [a partnership with an outside distance learning entity] is a train you have to jump on, but I don’t think anyone has to jump on any particular train right now. Because who knows where it’s going and who knows which is the right one?” Verba said.

As with any foray into new territory, distance learning is forcing revisions to existing laws and regulations so they apply to new circumstances.

With the rise of virtual teaching, issues of how professors allot their teaching time – and to whom – have arisen. Branding and use of a University’s name – seen as critical to attract students by some Internet education entrepreneurs – raise questions of how the name can be used and by whom. They also raise more fundamental issues of dilution of a famous institution’s reputation should it be associated with an inferior online educational product.

There are even questions about the ultimate success of the new educational entities spawned by the new technology. Though expectations of success have attracted millions of dollars to these upstart organizations, the market for online education– much like the market for online goods and services that has also blossomed recently – is still sorting itself out.

Whatever the future holds, Harvard can expect to be a part of it. Though the residential component of a Harvard undergraduate education is irreplaceable and irreproducible, instructional technology is expected to slowly transform the way students at Harvard learn. And, through distance learning, Harvard will ultimately be even more accessible for those who have to, or want to, gain a Harvard education from places far removed from Harvard’s Cambridge and Boston campuses.

For more information on Innovation Fund grants, see the HACC website at