Campus & Community

From ‘what we do’ to ‘whom we serve’

9 min read

Extension School leader marks three years of change

For Huntington Lambert, who took the reins at Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education and the Extension School three years ago, coming to Cambridge was a sort of homecoming.

Lambert still remembers when his mother studied at the Extension School while he was growing up in neighboring Dover. The School has changed a lot since, but the open-enrollment model remains in place, a draw for a wide range of nontraditional students.

Besides the Extension School, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, the Division of Continuing Education includes the Summer School for high school students preparing for college, development programs for working professionals, and the Institute for Learning in Retirement. Every year, the division serves 20,000 students from more than 120 countries.

The Gazette sat down with Lambert to talk about highlights of his first three years on the job, the growth of the Extension School, and the role of technology in what he called an “era of lifelong learning.”

GAZETTE: Your mother took classes at Harvard Extension School when you were young. And later on, you taught at night while you were raising a family and had a full-time job. How do you think these two experiences prepared you for this job?

LAMBERT: My mother disappeared at nights to go back to school. Roll the clock forward 30 years, and I started teaching at an M.B.A. program at night, and suddenly, I was the parent — with a full-time job with kids at home — who disappeared at night. Ten, 15 years later, I ended up as dean of the Extension School and a whole division that teaches at night to adults. The magic moment came when, after I became dean here, I had my mother come to a graduation ceremony. She had graduated but never came to the ceremony. It was going complete circle, from Mom disappearing to giving her a degree from where she had disappeared.

GAZETTE: Before you came here, you created and led the Colorado State University Global Campus, an all-online public university. Can you tell us more about this?

LAMBERT: At Colorado State University, I got deeply involved in the economics of the state. That’s when I discovered that there were 750,000 people just in Colorado alone who started college and never finished. I got the entrepreneurial bug, and a team of us went off and started an online university. The belief was that we could build an online university from scratch that was public, half the price and twice as good as the University of Phoenix. The first class was in the fall of 2008, and by the end of 2010, we had 3,000 students. Now it has 15,000 students. The idea was to use online technology to teach this adult population who needed to be re-educated to join the knowledge community. One of my jokes was that if we were really successful, the University of Phoenix would leave Colorado, and they did. They couldn’t compete with us. Everything was going along fine, and Harvard called.

GAZETTE: What attracted you to Harvard?

LAMBERT: I was interested in Harvard because the mission of the Extension School intrigued me. John Lowell Jr. created the Lowell Institute in 1835, which was the Extension School’s precursor. He had faculty teaching evening courses that were for “the women and men of Boston,” and they charged the equivalent of two bushels of wheat. The idea of having courses open to the public goes all the way back to that. You can still do this today; you can pursue an undergraduate degree through the Extension School for $40,000 and a graduate degree for $25,000. We can extend Harvard to the part-time learner with the academic ability, curiosity, and drive to succeed. Whom we serve, the part-time student, is what makes us unique from the other Harvard Schools that focus primarily on full-time learners.

GAZETTE: How would you compare the students of 1910, when the school was founded, to the students of today?

LAMBERT: In those days, the dominant theme was individual-course takers. People came for personal growth. They had never studied Shakespeare, and they wanted a Shakespeare course taught by a Harvard faculty member. Today 96 percent of our students tell us they’re taking courses for professional gain. Now roughly half of our students take a single course, and the other half are pursuing certificates or degrees to get promotions or switch jobs.

GAZETTE: What about the mission of the school? Has it changed over the years?

LAMBERT: Our mission was and is to extend Harvard to the general public. The biggest change I made since I got here was to rearticulate the mission from “what we do” to “whom we serve.” We’re one of 12 degree-granting Schools at Harvard. The other Schools primarily serve full-time students. Our School largely serves part-time learners, adult learners, nontraditional students.

GAZETTE: Who gets to teach at the Extension School?

LAMBERT: Fifty-two percent of Harvard Extension School instructors are Harvard affiliates, and the remainder are faculty from other schools and industry professionals. For our learners, this combination of Harvard academics and industry professionals gives them the best of both worlds.

GAZETTE: You’ve been at the helm of the Extension School for three years. What are the highlights of your tenure?

LAMBERT: I restructured the division to align the whole organization around student success. And for the first time in the division’s history, we’re known by the other Harvard Schools. We made an effort to share what we know with the other Schools as they go online. We partner with them when they want to reach the part-time learner. In the past, we’ve never had any relationship with the other Harvard Schools, and now we know each other and are working together. For much of our history we sat on the edge of Harvard, purposely ignored and purposely hiding, and now I feel we’re really a part of Harvard. The other Schools understand who we are and whom we serve.

GAZETTE: How has the perception about the Extension School changed over the years?

LAMBERT: The biggest deal is for people to understand that we serve part-time learners, nontraditional students. If you can get in to Harvard College or any of the graduate schools and attend full-time, you should do it. But if you have a job or you have to keep working because you have a family, then you can be a part of Harvard through the Extension School and receive a high-quality education. We have an open-enrollment policy, meaning anyone can register for a course. However, we have a unique admissions process for our degree programs whereby students take classes first and earn three Bs or better to qualify to be admitted to a degree. This “earn your way in” admission policy provides a second chance for working adults who may have started a degree years ago elsewhere. In the end, only 32 percent of those who want to pursue an undergraduate degree earn the grades for admission. So for adult part-time learners, we’re very selective. For students who are admitted to a program, our average graduation rate is 85 percent, which is phenomenal.

GAZETTE: How do you think online education is changing higher education?

LAMBERT: Online has two stories: The first story is online technology, which lets you scale courseware infinitely at near-zero cost, and has resulted in MOOCs and millions of people sharing this experience. What it hasn’t demonstrated is whether learning scales. One of the things I’ve observed is that learning is an intensely personal human activity. So whenever we design online courses, we design them with human contact and support. Online courses have a teaching assistant for every 25 students. We have added “hybrid” courses, which are online with a required weekend on campus. They’re our highest-rated courses. But many of our courses are still small courses on campus at night where people sit around tables to talk about things.

GAZETTE: Is an online degree comparable to an on-campus degree?

LAMBERT: They’re different experiences. When you come to do a four-year residential undergraduate degree, you’re a young person and you take a big block of time out of your life, and you learn in an intense environment. Our adult learners are looking for something different. They want the academic component to help fuel their professional career and can’t spend the time for the rest.

Also, it’s important to note that none of our degrees can be earned entirely online. We think coming to campus for in-person interaction with faculty and fellow students is an important part of the degree experience, so each of our degrees has some residential component. The opportunity to study on the Harvard campus is part of what makes our programs special.

GAZETTE: When you first came to Harvard, the division offered 200 online courses. Now it offers more than 450. What’s the role of the Extension School in expanding the University’s digital footprint?

LAMBERT: The most fundamental thing we do is access, innovation, and economic self-sufficiency. For 106 years, we’ve been the place where Harvard faculty come to try ideas and bring successes back to the classroom. If you look back in our history, we were teaching radio courses in the 1920s, we were doing television courses in the 1950s, and online courses since 1997. We have always been the place where Harvard faculty can experiment. We offer roughly 800 courses, and more than half of them are online and that’s where the enrollment growth has happened. The other area of significant growth is in professional graduate certificates. Every year we have students from over 150 countries enrolled online. Faculty tell us that global cultural diversity makes the courses even better.

GAZETTE: How do you envision the future of the Extension School? What are your goals?

LAMBERT: First, I want to figure out how we serve the rest of the Schools at Harvard. We already partner with the Business School and we’re talking with the School of Public Health, SEAS, and the Medical School. We’re talking to all the Schools about how we can help them extend themselves to part-time learners by sharing what we know about technology, online and enhanced teaching and learning. We want to serve as many adult learners as we can. We also want to encourage other universities to do the same. If Harvard can do it with this quality and this price, other schools can too, and the audience is so big that we really need more schools educating this population. As for Harvard, if we can extend it to this part-time audience, if we can contribute, that is a very virtuous circle, and that only makes Harvard stronger and the world a better place.