On the second floor of a nondescript office building near the corner of Colfax and Wadsworth sits a small studio where every year hundreds of people receive a Harvard education.
From that small room multiple courses beam across the globe to every continent but Antarctica. When students log in, the subtly smug instructor grinning back at them is my younger brother, Teo.
As colleges and universities across the county struggle with reopening plans amid a pandemic, most of his courses have hardly registered a blip.
Last year he had 967 students enrolled in the real estate courses he teaches for the Harvard Extension School. It is likely to top 1,000 this year as summer school enrollments increased. More people with more time have looked for more avenues to prepare for a post-COVID world.
For the past several years, his online course sizes finished only behind a renowned Harvard computer-science professor. But it isn’t a shock tech savvy programmers would be comfortable in that type of environment. Real estate finance and development, on the other hand, is literally about the brick and mortar of physical locations.
It will be those types of subjects, more difficult to translate into a digital world, that will challenge teachers and students the most.
Successfully navigating that transition is an accomplishment every school and professor across the planet will be desperately trying to replicate as fall approaches.
My brother began teaching online for his alma mater in 2006. The part-time work complemented his full-time job managing real estate transactions for a large multi-family housing developer. By 2015 he had the opportunity to revamp the skeletal Harvard Extension School real estate program.
When he took over, the school offered one class, once a year with 35 on-campus students. In the intervening years, he has built out an entire program that has enrolled more than 4,100 participants.
The exponential growth highlights both the extraordinary unrealized opportunity colleges and universities now have before them along with the significant challenges they face tapping into it. Instructors and professors accustomed to in-person lecture halls rarely adapt well to cramped studios and camera-only audiences.
Yet pushing through those obstacles could change higher education forever.
As my brother put it to me, “every online educator is haunted by the idea that we have lost multiple Marie Curies, Frederick Douglass’ or Albert Einsteins because they never had access to an education that would unlock their potential.”
He subsequently highlighted both synchronous and asynchronous learning as examples of how that can change. The first is effectively a class via Zoom. No longer constrained by the occupancy limits of a classroom, the concept of a waitlist could become anachronistic to modern education.
Furthermore, the enormous cost of uprooting to live near the college could be avoided. Given an internet connection, anyone from anywhere could register and learn from the comfort of their home.
Asynchronous learning adds even more flexibility. In its simplest form it is taped lectures supported by teaching aides and instructors. Students’ learning pace is no longer bound to teaching schedules. Courses could be accelerated for those with extra time or extended for people balancing other priorities.
The potential economic boon to colleges and universities cannot be overlooked, either. After initial setup, courses cost less – due to the requirement for fewer teachers and reduced need for physical space – and increase revenue through larger enrollments.
Ironically, my brother is in the midst of packing for a return to Boston. He has been accepted into the MIT master’s program in real estate development. Apparently, they still hope to hold some classes in person.
I won’t be shocked if that changes not long after Teo arrives.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.
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