The Absent Professor

March, 2003

When Janine Clifford graduated from Harvard University with a master’s in housing and community development, she had every intention of returning home to pursue her doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii. She didn’t know at the time that the focus of her dissertation – technology’s effect on people’s lifestyles – would enable her to both live in Hawaii and receive an Ivy League education at the same time.

“When I got home, I presented a proposal to Harvard and became the design school’s first remote synchronous student,” says Clifford, president of Honolulu-based design and architecture firm, Clifford Planning LLC.

She supplied all of her own equipment – basically a computer and a Web-cam – and Harvard agreed to provide all the necessary technology on its end. Since the program was synchronous, and there were no allowances made for Clifford, this required an actual technician carting Clifford’s “presence” (a television set on wheels) from class to class.

In April 2002, Clifford earned her doctoral degree in design, and her venture into distance learning was, by all accounts, a huge success. So much so that the school invited her to teach a Harvard design course virtually, from Hawaii. That is how 11 students from all over the world came to do a case study on Kakaako last September.

“We used the academic setting of Harvard to re-examine Kakaako, by studying demographics, and doing comparison analysis and assessments. The goal was to come up with a master-plan scale of what direction we think the site will go,” says Clifford. She communicated with her students via a teleconference room in Clifford Planning’s office, as well as e-mail, instant chat rooms and discussion boards.

“Many of our sponsors, who were leaders of both private and public entities in Hawaii, did guest lectures,” says Clifford, who managed to secure $75,000 in sponsorship from government and private sectors. The sponsors consisted of a diverse group of organizations already vested in Kakaako, such as the Hawaii Community Development Authority, Kamehameha Schools, General Growth Properties Inc. and more.

“They all worked very closely with our group, and many of them felt the students ideas were very conceptual, and that some of them certainly do merit further research and thought,” says Clifford. “It was a unique situation with no political agenda, to bring everyone together and extend the discussion about Kakaako.” At the time of this writing, Clifford was mulling Harvard’s request to teach a second course from Hawaii. Leeward coast, anyone?

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Jacy L. Youn