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The Age of the Internet: A New Generation of Harvard Students Plugs In

The Class of 1998 saw some of Harvard’s early online forays, becoming some of the first students to access their grades virtually.
The Class of 1998 saw some of Harvard’s early online forays, becoming some of the first students to access their grades virtually. By Sophia Salamanca
By Jonah C. Karafiol and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

For Harvard students today, technology is virtually unavoidable. Students select courses, turn in assignments, and even attend classes through various online platforms. The Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Design have gone as far as to explicitly require students to have computers.

But it hasn’t always been this way. In a 2017 interview with The Crimson, Computer Science concentrators C. Eric Rosenblum ’92 and N. Edwin Aoki ’92 both said they did not use the internet during their time at Harvard. Then, in 2017, Mark W. Jacobstein ’92 offered a possible explanation: the internet did not seem useful to students.

“In 1992, not everyone even had a computer,” Jacobstein said. “I don’t know that we would have known what to do with a network… Your friends didn’t have email addresses at other colleges, it just wasn’t part of the milieu.”

The status quo changed in 1995 when a faculty committee called on all staff and faculty members to obtain personal computers and internet access by the summer of 1996. The College then implemented online grade access in the fall of 1997.

Since then, the internet has played an instrumental role in shaping the student experiences and future careers of Harvard undergraduates.

A New Way to Learn

In 2014, the College announced that it would adopt Canvas, a web-based learning platform, for all of its classes by the 2016-17 academic year. In a 2014 interview, Kristin Sullivan, senior director of educational technology and public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, said that the University was one of the early adopters of Canvas.

“We have been able to contribute to the platform,” Sullivan wrote in an email to The Crimson at the time, noting that Harvard has piloted Canvas since the fall semester and recently decided it will universalize the system. “We are participating in their open-source community and have built custom tools supported by the platform.”

Canvas allows students to submit assignments, receive grades and feedback on their work, and contact teaching fellows and course assistants in the same place.

Some professors have even opted to allow students to enroll in their courses without ever attending a lecture — at least in person.

In spring 2023, four Computer Science courses, four Economics courses, a Government course, a Neuroscience course, and a Statistics course allowed students to enroll in another course taking place at the same time without additional permission. Students enrolled in such courses were expected to watch recordings of the lectures posted on the courses’ Canvas pages.

In the fall of 2022, Statistics 110: “Introduction to Probability” garnered 788 students — making it the most-enrolled course at Harvard — and allowed students to simultaneously enroll without petitioning the Administrative Board.

In addition to altering the lives of Harvard undergraduates, the internet opened the door for a new generation of Harvard students through the Harvard Extension School. In 1997, Harvard created the Distance Education Program to aid adults seeking to continue their education. The Extension School, which has served students ages 18 to 89, awards more than 8,000 degrees and 1,000 certificates each year.

A pair of students study in the library during finals in 1997. Online educational tools transformed academics at Harvard.
A pair of students study in the library during finals in 1997. Online educational tools transformed academics at Harvard. By Aneesh Venkataraman

‘It’s Crazy’

For some students, the infusion of the internet into Harvard’s student life altered their career paths.

In 1997, Harvard undergraduates Wellie W. Chao ’98, Seth P. Sternglanz ’98, and Phuc V. Truong ’98 unveiled an online job recruitment website they had developed for Harvard’s Office of Career Services.

“A lot of universities are moving toward a system like this, but we’ve beaten a lot of them to the punch,” Sternglanz said to The Crimson at the time.

Chao, Sternglanz, and Truong then went on to start their own company, Crimson Solutions, which provided a recruiting platform for students to use as they entered the job market. According to Truong, Crimson Solutions raised over $22 million in funding and eventually merged with another company.

For Truong, moving into the internet company space with Crimson Solutions was the first of a number of entrepreneurial ventures he has undertaken since. After leaving Crimson Solutions, Truong worked as a consultant for a few years, during which time he said he realized that he “didn’t go to Harvard to be someone’s minion” and returned to entrepreneurship.

Truong said that he was not the only member of his class to enter internet startups during the “dot-com bubble” and referenced other tech entrepreneurs that graduated from Harvard in the years after him, ultimately crediting his own success to persistence.

In the years since, internet careers — including outside of entrepreneurship — have become increasingly common amongst Harvard alumni, with 12 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s 2023 Senior Survey saying that they plan on working in the tech industry after graduating — the third most popular choice after finance and consulting.

Using the internet, Truong said that he is hoping his most recent venture, a robotic recycling company named Phuc Labs, will take him to billionaire status — but added that he is “already a millionaire.”

“That’s the fucking internet. It’s crazy,” he added.

—Staff writer Jonah C. Karafiol can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahkarafiol.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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