Podcast: Chris Davis: Harvard Extension School

In today’s episode, I sit down with Chris Davis, Associate Director of the Career and Academic Resource Center at Harvard Extension School, to explore the innovative programs offered at Harvard Extension, the impact on non-traditional learners, and the future of education in a rapidly evolving world. Tune in to discover the exciting possibilities beyond traditional higher education!

TRANSCRIPT

Chris Davis: 

And it’s exciting because I think that is very much the future of education. And it’s also just a very inspiring part of our mission, I think, to be able to serve students who are, they have families, they have businesses, they have professional careers, or they have their own business, they have a lot on their plate. And they are doing these courses or doing these degree programs for career advancement or for personal Richmond, or for many other reasons.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, everybody, welcome back to the podcast and happy June, I can’t believe we’re halfway through this year already. And we’re so close to the end of the school year. For most students, it’s a very exciting time, it is a very stressful and trying time as we try to wrap things up. And for a lot of students really embark on the essay writing portion of the college application process, I know it can be very stressful. So definitely stay tuned for some episodes about that and free event we’re doing on the 17th on the college essay with a bunch of my best writing coaches. So today on the podcast, I’ve got an old friend joining us. It’s Chris Davis, who is the director of the Center for Academic Resources at Harvard Extension School, and I’ll let him explain what that is and what he does. But he’s got some interesting perspectives to share on how Harvard adapted to pandemic learning the kinds of students they’re trying to serve through their extension school programming. And the way they think about student experience, it’s really quite inspiring. So take a listen, I hope you enjoy. I want people to learn about you know, you and what you do, and the kind of programs that are offered through Harvard Extension and the kind of impact that you get to see with your students, because I think a lot of the people who listen to my podcast are very fixated on like a very traditional idea of what higher education looks like. And I think there’s so much more out there, that is really innovative, where the actual innovation in education is happening, the actual impact is happening. And I want people to hear about that.

Chris Davis: 

Oh, thank you, Sheila. So yeah, let me start out with just introducing myself very quickly. I’m Chris Davis. I’m the Associate Director of the Career and Academic Resource Center here at Harvard Extension School, Harvard Extension School sits within the Division of Continuing Education at Harvard. And yes, I’m so glad you started out that way. Because it feels like to me, especially over the past five years, there’s just been more of a global appreciation for non traditional learning in many senses. And I certainly think that’s part of our mission, lifelong learning as part of our mission. So just very quick synopsis of who we are and what we do. The Harvard Extension School offers graduate certificates, an undergraduate degree program, many graduate degree programs in the humanities, liberal arts and sciences, professional fields, are pre MediCal program. And we also have hundreds of courses that are taken by people who are here for one course, or people who take multiple courses on the path to a graduate certificate or degree program. So we serve students in many different ways. The median age is in the 30s. But we have students younger and much older than that. Many of them many of the ones who are pursuing degrees are professionals. They are full time career folks, sometimes mid career or senior career, who are here to complete a degree or to start a degree that they weren’t able to when they were younger. And it’s exciting, because I think that is very much the future of education. And it’s also just very inspiring part of our mission, I think, to be able to serve students who are they have families, they have businesses, they have professional careers, or they have their own business, they have a lot on their plate. And they are doing these courses or doing these degree programs for career advancement or for personal enrichment, or for many other reasons.

Sheila Akbar: 

I wonder if we can back up a little bit and talk about how you got into this work. Personally, what drove you here?

Chris Davis: 

Oh, my goodness. That’s an interesting question. So yeah, I was originally from Boston. And I began my first role at Harvard at the business school and then I came to the to the Extension School because, yeah, I mean, the original population of students that I work with were very much non traditional students, adult learners, and that really spoke to me it’s always spoken to me.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s great. I’m also curious, you know, as you SAT in this role through the pen endemic before the pandemic, during the pandemic and after the pandemic, I’m wondering if you can comment on some of the changes that you’ve seen both in terms of what students need, but also what students want from their education.

Chris Davis: 

The interesting thing is that for us, even beforehand, a good chunk of our course delivery was already online, we have students, as I said, who are across the country who around the world. So we already were kind of pioneers in that online education space. So we already had a very strong bedrock in serving global student population, online education was something we were very comfortable with. So unlike other institutions, we certainly had to pivot and change some stuff, but it wasn’t like, you know, I know a lot of people were very much discombobulated by having to overnight, adjust their pedagogy and their their course delivery, so so dramatically, it wasn’t the same with us. But it’s also very important because people’s lives changed. That was one of the things that I tried to respond to certainly, as quickly as I could, because, yeah, we had a population of students who were professionals, and who had families who had childcare commitments. And so people got laid off, or people were working from home, and juggling childcare. So all of a sudden, our students needs changed as well, a lot of people across the world, not just our students, but we’re figuring out how to juggle all of this, while really having to have their professional, what was expected of them adjusted as well. So I responded by working with some of the people that I that I work with, to present some of our programming to do new sessions on how to juggle studying, with childcare and remote work and those kinds of things. Increasing, having new sessions on positive psychology based methods of coping with stress and burnout, some of those programs I still do to this day. So yeah, certainly the needs of our students changed, not just in their in their academic work, but in their lives, which ended up impacting their academic work.

Sheila Akbar: 

And forgive my ignorance here, but how many students a year are you serving through Harvard Simpson school programming?

Chris Davis: 

Oh, gosh, just to give you an example, in the fall and spring semesters, you know, we have around nine or 10,000 students, and they are across the globe, literally, it’s a very diverse population.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, and for the listeners to put that in context that’s bigger than the Harvard undergraduate population. So that’s a significant number of students and a lot of resources. And I’ve always really loved the Extension School because you get more flexibility in terms of timing or, you know, format of the course. But it’s the same course that the Harvard undergrads would take, or the Harvard grads would take, depending on the instructor. So it’s just a really wonderful way to bring access to people who might otherwise not not have it. So as you look ahead to 2024, what are some of your priorities? Where are you really excited to develop things and innovate?

Chris Davis: 

One of the things that excites me, and I think this is, I mean, again, this predates the pandemic. But it kind of dovetails really nicely, because I think it aligns with what I was talking about earlier, which is kind of meeting students where they are. And also, yeah, adjusting to changing needs and changing technologies and multimedia kind of programming and things that are in shorter kind of increments or smaller packages. I’m excited to be developing the CARC podcast is something that maybe you can relate to as a fellow podcast host. But that’s something that I started in 2019. And it’s grown and evolved. And it’s been an opportunity to have conversations with Harvard faculty and students and alumni and subject matter experts and authors, some very special people in a way that just, I think adds to what we do. I think, from the feedback I’ve gotten from students, it’s relatable. They’re more kind of casual conversations about interesting, relevant things, but less as an official presentation and in a difference, like a fireside chat kind of method. And that’s something that I’ve been very excited about throughout this time and, and to continue doing that.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I feel like it’s very humanizing medium. And I think part of the thing that I get really excited about with podcast is that listeners students mostly good to hear that we’re all just normal people. And you know, from from the outside looking in, it may look like Go there was a straight line to success or they’d never struggled, or they always had it figured out. But on a medium like a podcast, you get to really hear those challenges and the pivots and the random acts of kindness that that set people up to, you know where they are now. And I think that’s really empowering. Well, there’s one thing I wanted to go back to before I let you go, which was, you know, you’re part of the Department of continuing education at Harvard. And you mentioned that over the last five years or so, the conversation about non traditional learners has gotten a lot more mainstream. And certainly in my world, I see more people willing to look at you know, now I live in California, a lot more people willing to look at a community to four year university transfer. And the vast majority of college going students in the United States start at a community college, right. And we, the media, we all tend to focus on, you know, a very select few of which Harvard is one as the model of education. But that’s not the reality of where the majority of students get educated. So I’m wondering if you have thoughts on like, that entire movement? Where do you see it going? I really feel like there has to be a sea change coming. There is just too much competition for those very few spots at what we consider the most elite schools. And they are not educating the majority of students. There’s a big change coming in the workforce. I mean, it’s happening in the workforce, both with remote work in AI, things are really changing, and traditional education may not serve the goals of this evolving workplace. So I’m curious what your thoughts are on like the future of continuing education and where it can be most impactful? Oh,

Chris Davis: 

gosh, well, that yeah, that’s a million, zillion dollar question. I will say this from observing, from where I’m positioned from where we’re positioned has been very interesting. I think also, there is more broad recognition among the general public students, prospective employers, industry leaders, thought leaders, political leaders, that yeah, things have changed. And this, how permanent that is in what increments will change more, when is that going to happen? I think that’s something which unsettles people but it’s also an exciting future that lies ahead for all of us. Education evolving. And as you mentioned, the workforce evolving what how, how much remote work is going to stay with us and what in what increment that the future will tell us. But that’s not going away. But exciting way of looking at these is that there are always opportunities to increase accessibility, to open up whether we’re talking about education or accessibility in the workforce, or non traditional students entering higher ed, we can increase the opportunities that that people have. So yeah, I’m very much I’m not trying to prognosticate.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, and as we watch, employers, consider whether they really need college degrees to fulfill certain responsibilities or what AI decides to completely disrupt or replace. And then how education adapts to prepare students for that world, I think is just a really, like you said, can be a little unsettling, but I think there’s a lot of excitement and possibility there, too. Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Chris, thank you so much for joining me today.

Chris Davis: 

Sheila, thank you for having me. I really appreciate this.

Sheila Akbar: 

This was great. Thank you. Thanks again, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll see you next week, where my guests will be David Hawkins and Tom Bear. Talking about the role of character in the admissions process, which is one of my favorite things to talk about. And we’ve got two experts who can tell us about the character initiative at the National Association of College admissions counselors, so be sure to tune in next week and hope to see you then bye.

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