Monday, December 11, 2006

But what about... The Harvard Name?

One possible objection to opening up the Extension School to people online is that it might somehow dilute the prestige or the strength of the Harvard name. To some this might seem like a silly concern or even an elitist one, but there are good reasons to consider it (especially since I think, in the end, it turns out not to be a problem). After all, the people who are at Harvard (the students, the faculty, the administrators, everyone) have worked very hard to get there. (As someone who did not get in as an undergraduate and then again as graduate before finally succeeding as a law student, I should know!) They are justifiably proud of the accomplishment and it is not just snobbishness that makes us want to display our diplomas on the wall.

Plus, if you think about it, the name recognition helps the school do what it does so well: educate people, conduct cutting-edge research, train future leaders, and all of that. These are important activities and if it weren't for the strength of the Harvard name, if it weren't for the respect that it generates (and the money, in the form of donations, grants, etc.), Harvard would have a lot harder time accomplishing them.

So, it is not a silly or an elitist concern to worry about the effects of setting up OpenCourseWare at the Extension School. After all, will it mean the same thing to say "the course I took at Harvard" if some version of that course is available to everyone online?

Luckily, I don't think that this will actually turn out to be a problem.

First, OpenCourseWare can actually improve Harvard's reputation. The good publicity can make the institution as a whole look a lot better, actually combating the image of Harvard as an elite institution that excludes people. It can generate a lot of goodwill worldwide, much like the general good-feeling that the Extension School itself generates in the Cambridge community.

Second, there's no real harm in it. After all, those of us who ARE sometimes worried about the prestige of our institution and who do relish the thought of pointing to the diploma on the wall (and the doors that it will open) should remember that OpenCourseWare is not a degree-granting program. While it will share the knowledge and the resources of Harvard more broadly (and who wouldn't want that?), it won't be giving away or devaluing the credit for actually taking, and excelling in the courses that a degree indicates.

It's the best of both worlds!

(To hear me actually talking about this on an mp3, click here.)

(Oh, and even better, to hear Patrick Engelman - an Extension School student from CyberOne - talk and rap about it, click here. Believe me, it's worth listening to!)

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