Huntington “Hunt” D. Lambert — former Dean of the Division of Continuing Education — said in an interview last week that he believes colleges’ smooth transition to virtual education is partially owed to Harvard Extension School’s years-long partnership with videoconferencing platform Zoom.
In March, the University transitioned all teaching online in light of the escalating coronavirus pandemic. Other institutions across the nation quickly followed suit, vacating their campuses and forcing millions of students to complete their coursework from home.
But even before the current pandemic struck, the Extension School — Harvard’s distance and nontraditional learning arm — offered over 200 courses per semester that met primarily on Zoom.
Lambert credits the quick nationwide transition to online learning partly to the Extension School’s innovation in virtual teaching and learning.
“Because the features were there and because the methodologies were now widely known — we have been presenting them for three, four years at all the major online and technology education conferences — I think Harvard actually really accelerated the ability of people to adopt it,” Lambert said.
Lambert — who came to Harvard after serving as the administrator of Colorado State University’s online program — said he began his work as dean in 2013 with a guiding vision for expanding online offerings.
“The question that HES faced as we went online was not how do we go online, but how do we make Harvard accessible to people who cannot come to campus but can do Harvard rigor of work?” Lambert said. “Let’s extend Harvard to them.”
Lambert said as dean, he sought to mirror the distinctive character of a traditional Harvard education for Extension School students learning online.
“Harvard is about personal relationships, lots of discussion, and ways for people to have lots of contact points,” he said. “We started working on technologies that would allow us to make the classroom available to these people in a highly interactive way.”
Lambert then worked with then-Chief Innovation Officer of DCE, Henry H. Leitner, to find an online platform that could accommodate those goals, he said. Since Lambert’s retirement last year, Leitner has served as DCE’s interim dean.
About four years ago, Leitner’s team approached Zoom — a fledgling company at the time — hoping to collaborate on features conducive to an intimate and interactive online learning experience, according to Lambert. The partnership brought lower costs for Harvard and a significantly enhanced platform for students.
Lambert said the Extension School was the only major online academic institution to work with Zoom for about two to three years. During that time, Harvard and Zoom continued to work together on improvements for the platform.
“One of the things we had Zoom do was build an LTI interface into Canvas, so the way to our Zoom classes is through Canvas,” Lambert said, referring to an online course-management site accessible to professors and their students.
Zoom, he added, was “highly secure” because it was built within Harvard’s online security apparatus.
Under his leadership, Lambert said, a key focus of the Extension School was developing teaching strategies for Zoom, as well as sharing this knowledge with peer institutions.
“Our digital teaching and learning group documented all the methodologies, and actually put it online with training courses,” Lambert said. “And over the last four years or so, we’ve been hosting one or two university delegations every month, teaching them everything we know so they can copy us.”
Lambert said that he hopes the experience of using online education during the current pandemic demonstrates the potential for online education to complement traditional in-person classes.
“The argument of one or the other is a false dichotomy,” Lambert said. “The issue is what learner is at what stage in their life, and how can they succeed in the learning they need for their personal and professional success.”
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.