A Landmark Gift for Learning

The Hausers invest $40 million to launch the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

Gustave and Rita Hauser

President Drew Faust announced today that Harvard benefactors Rita E. Hauser, L ’58, and Gustave M. Hauser, J.D. ’53, have donated $40 million to initiate a program aimed at encouraging pedagogical innovation and strengthening learning and teaching throughout the University (as opposed to course development or curricular additions per se). The timing and size of the Hausers’ gift—coming just four days after the social celebration of Harvard’s 375th anniversary, and well before any formal launch of a future capital campaign—make it doubly significant. First, it focuses attention on one of the institution’s chief academic missions. Second, it illustrates the scale of the effort and philanthropy Harvard aims to muster as it pursues its twenty-first-century agenda.

The Hausers’ gift, structured to be put to use during the next decade, will initially support these elements of the newly formed Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching:

  • a University-wide conference on learning and teaching, scheduled for next February, drawing on experts in cognition, in effective education, and in effecting change, from beyond as well as within Harvard;
  • a grant program to seed innovations conceived by faculty, academic administrators, staff members, and students—suggesting the scope of opportunities for enhancing learning and teaching;
  • support for conceiving and building new pilot classroom spaces that give free rein to teaching technologies, active learning, and real-time and international interactions during course work; and
  • building capacity and expertise to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching innovations and new learning strategies—the underpinning for disseminating information about improved pedagogical practices throughout Harvard and then beyond.

The gift itself, Faust said, resulted from the Hausers’ response to an early planning paper on the issue prepared as part of the larger effort to prepare for a University capital campaign. In the news release announcing the gift (which also includes a video announcement), Faust summarized some of the challenges this way: “Dramatic developments in technology and research aimed at understanding how people learn are radically changing the practice of teaching, offering instructors new and exciting ways to engage with students. This remarkable gift from the Hausers will allow us to support the efforts of our enormously creative faculty and provide a framework for making excellent teaching and engagement between faculty and students the touchstone of the educational experience at Harvard.”

Gustave Hauser’s statement focused on “a very significant moment in higher education. There is a whole generation of new students who require new teaching and learning methods. This project focuses Harvard’s enormous resources on making higher education more effective.” Added Rita Hauser, “We are giving a sizable gift, which is just the beginning. This is really a start-up, if you like, and we hope it will be a catalytic gift.…not just for Harvard, but for universities in general.”

In a conversation at her Massachusetts Hall office, Faust said, “This is something that matters a lot to me.” Teaching and learning, she said, will be “front and center in the campaign,” because they are “at the heart of who we are and what we do.”

The time is right for this emphasis, she said, because this is a moment of “transformation” driven by increased knowledge about how people learn and by technological changes that enable new kinds of teaching and learning. Universities, she suggested, had perhaps been slow in adapting to the latter potential. Improved teaching and learning, she continued, are priorities that “Harvard has been investing in increasingly”—not just financially, but “pragmatically, institutionally, and emotionally.” Faust cited the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Compact on Teaching and Learning, adopted in 2007; Harvard Kennedy School’s SLATE (Strengthening Learning and Teaching Excellence) program—which has a distinctive emphasis on assessing rigorously what students get from a course; and Harvard Business School’s “very self-conscious approach to teaching.”

Beyond the opportunities to enhance learning, and the various faculties’ current initiatives to do so, she said, there are external reasons for making this a priority now. When accreditors review the College and the professional schools, she said, assessment, evaluation, and learning outcomes are a constant concern. And that is true in society at large, too: “It’s a broader social and cultural voice asking, “What does go on in these universities?’” she said. The public increasingly questions how higher-education institutions can change their teaching practices and enhance learning if they don’t have a good handle on what is working. Hence the initiative’s emphasis on experimentation coupled with evaluation, across all of Harvard’s schools.

Vesting the program in the office of the president and provost, Faust said, signals that this is a University priority and, from a practical perspective, engages all the deans in addressing the issue and sharing promising outcomes. The Hausers’ “marvelous act of generosity and vision” makes it possible to move forward broadly and swiftly, and to bring expertise, whatever its source, to bear on “practical improvements”—based on what faculty members are doing already and new ideas they may test and bring to fruition with added help. She concluded by noting that for all the emphasis on research within research universities, that mission necessarily includes dissemination of discoveries—through publication, inventions and applications, and, of course, teaching.

Given the importance of the Hausers' gift and its ramifications, this report examines both in greater detail. Accompanying articles look at the Hausers’ engagement with the University and, for broader context, past and present work and discussion at Harvard and beyond focused on pedagogy, evaluation of students’ learning, and related subjects.

“The Guide on the Side, Not the Sage on the Stage”

The Hausers’ gift is structured to focus attention on what makes for effective learning and teaching, broadly defined; to spur innovation and evaluation of outcomes; and to encourage understanding and adoption of improved practices promptly—in each case, across Harvard’s schools. To that end, the gift is in the form of flexible funding, to be applied under the president’s auspices where she discerns particularly promising opportunities, and to be spent during the next decade. Thus, it is not an endowment, but rather a major infusion of resources meant to affect how Harvard fulfills its educational mission in the near term—and to seed further investments to support continuous improvements in the classroom and beyond.

These subjects, President Faust has made clear, rank high among her academic and capital-campaign priorities:

If we think about Harvard at its 400th anniversary, one of the areas that I think will be most significantly transformed is how we teach. We will make innovative teaching a high-priority theme in the upcoming campaign. [The subject encompasses] what we now know, through cognitive science, about how people learn and how we can adjust our teaching more effectively to that knowledge. It involves the opportunities that technology presents to do things digitally and release human time for the dimensions of teaching that benefit most from face-to-face interaction. It involves bringing the visual more fully into the classroom. It involves making the classroom more international through technological opportunities.…It involves thinking about assessment in different ways—how we evaluate students, faculty, methods, and courses and programs. In all those realms, we have a responsibility to provide the means and the encouragement to faculty to teach in new and exciting ways, and to teach students who learn differently and interact with the world in ways that are quite different from the ways you and I expected to interact with the world when we were in school. [From an interview conducted in late July for Harvard Magazine’s 375th anniversary issue]

Photograph by Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

Eric Mazur

Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

John G. Palfrey VII

Photograph by Richard Howard

Youngme Moon

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office

David J. Malan

Many of those themes were elaborated by a working group of faculty members and deans—the professors who are already engaged in exploring new ways of teaching, the deans who help underwrite their experiments—as part of the brainstorming that goes into planning the capital campaign. Among the participants, from across Harvard, were:

  • Eric Mazur, Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics (and dean for applied physics in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, SEAS), widely known for pioneering quick-response mechanisms (initially using “clickers” but now including wireless devices) to assess how well students grasp new concepts and can use them; he now focuses on small-group and student-led interactive learning. Faust cited him for “reconceiving how conceptual learning takes place.” Whatever he may have already accomplished, Mazur is an evangelist for much more sweeping change. In a conversation, he said he was “delighted that Harvard is finally, seriously paying attention to teaching. It’s a long overdue area where Harvard is not a leader.” More broadly, he said, “99 percent of teaching spaces” were anticipated either in an image of an ancient Syrian palace school 4,000 years ago or in the Greek amphitheater: rows or rings of seats meant to “focus the attention of the many on the one”—a teacher or performer. But education, he said, is not about transferring information from one to many; it is about learning within the student. When printed books were new, he said, transferring information was vital, but today, information is ubiquitous and readily available, and students can pick it up when and where they want. Instead, the classroom ought to focus on assimilation and application of knowledge to new contexts. The teacher, he said, “becomes the guide on the side, instead of the sage on the stage,” requiring wholly new learning spaces and teaching techniques. That, in turn, requires an entirely different way of teaching future teaching professionals about how to do their work. “We have a long way to go,” Mazur said, “which is why I’m so happy about this gift.”
  • John G. Palfrey VII, Ess librarian of Harvard Law School and professor of law, a leader in library digitization. As a faculty co-director of the school’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, he is a scholar of all things digital. In a conversation, Palfrey said that universities “haven’t figured out how fundamental a change digitization will be,” and that assessing the efficacy of educational innovations and outcomes was rudimentary, at best. He characterized as “very exciting” the prospect of “venture-capital-style investing” in teaching innovations, alongside spending on infrastructure (moving toward classroom spaces “that will connect to digital environments, that are flexible,” and that move beyond current “hidebound forms.” Harvard, he said, had worked on education innovation for 375 years—at the law school, recently reducing first-year class sizes and introducing new problem-solving and international coursework, for example—and much more was on tap (he cited a colleague’s “hack the casebook” initiative). Of the Hauser-backed initiative, he said, “My hope is that this is a cross-cutting program that helps us build all kinds of bridges,” because “nothing is more important for the University to be focused on than improving teaching and learning.”
  • Youngme Moon, David professor of business administration, senior associate dean, and chair of the M.B.A. program at Harvard Business School. She is deeply involved in the swift introduction, now under way, of a required first-year course that joins practical field experiences to the school’s iconic case method of classroom instruction in management principles. (Read more about Moon's work with innovative "hive" classrooms at the Business School in this background article about pedagogical innovation, evaluation, and classroom design initiatives at Harvard and elsewhere.)
  • Jules Dienstag, Walter professor of medicine and dean for medical education. The Medical School has continuously revamped its curriculum and pedagogy, from the small-group and student-centered New Pathway of the 1980s to a recent overhaul of its students’ clinical work as hospital operations and patient populations have changed rapidly. He said students and faculty were “eager to be liberated from the constraints of a time-worn approach to lectures,” and sought interactive learning experiences. “The approach we have taken,” he continued, “is to provide the wiring for technology, but to rely on experiment-hungry faculty and digital-native students to tell us how to use the new technology and new learning spaces.” But given the constraints of focusing on educating current students and delivering the curriculum, he noted, it is difficult to look over the horizon; now, “the Hauser funds allow us to step back, they give us the luxury to innovate and experiment, and provide the impetus for all faculties to share best practices and work together.”
  • David J. Malan, the charismatic Computer Science 50 lecturer whose programming-cum-pizza “Hack Harvard” sessions have attracted a burgeoning enrollment of concentrators and non-expert students alike.

Other participants included Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education; SEAS dean Cherry Murray; and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Allan M. Brandt (whose students traditionally acquire teaching experience as they pursue doctoral studies and begin working with undergraduates).

The Hausers’ gift galvanizes work across the spectrum of opportunities identified by these and other interested faculty members and deans by creating a substantial core for such work.

The name, the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), was chosen carefully. It has been the norm, when speaking about pedagogical innovation and improvement, to talk about “teaching and learning”—putting the emphasis on how the faculty do their educational work. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) ambitious 2006-2007 effort to encourage innovative, effective work in the classroom, noted above, was led by its Task Force on Teaching and Career Development. But the desired outcome, of course, remains learning: students’ education.

Although HILT’s aims are bound up in experimentation, innovation, and discovery—so its outcomes are naturally unknown—some initial courses of action have been defined.

Innovation grants. Faculty, deans, administrators, postdoctoral instructors, and students are eligible to apply for grants, effective immediately (letters of intent are due November 18) to pursue educational innovations. Qualifying uses range from “developing instructional methods, tools, and assignments” to “integrat[ing] pedagogical scholarship into pedagogical practice” or “incorporat[ing] technology and social media into teaching and learning activities.” Pilot projects in the “scholarship of learning and teaching” are encouraged, as are plans to reconfigure classrooms in experimental ways and “planning for larger-scale learning and teaching projects by departments, programs, or schools.” Sums from $5,000 to $50,000 are available, and grants will be issued by February 3 (a significant date given the second HILT initiative—its University-wide pedagogical conference; see below).

Throughout the University, scores of individual faculty members have already tested or introduced new approaches to teaching. FAS highlighted some in forums last spring on active learning and experience-based teaching and on using the museum and library collections in the classroom, for example. The Graduate School of Education’s new doctor of education leadership program has introduced case-based instruction drawing on expertise in its own faculty and those of the Business School and Kennedy School of Government—and with field placements in education-reform groups for all students. And as noted, the Business School is, on an accelerated basis, introducing a field-based course (complementing its traditional pedagogy of case-based learning) that will send its entire first-year class of 900 M.B.A.s off to placements in companies around the world, mostly in developing economies, this January—joining management practice to the class-based immersion in principles.

As such initiatives bubble up, HILT should be in a central position to support them as they are proposed, to support more of them than resources now permit, and to make sure that they are evaluated (see below). HILT in effect assures that those that appear promising will not be lost, and that positive findings can be shared among Harvard’s faculties, education-support staff, and students. 

A launch conference. On February 3, a day-long conference will introduce the community to the best current thinking on the science of learning (based on studies of cognition, active learning, and so on) and innovations in higher education. Importantly, both Harvard and outside experts will be featured on these keynote panels—an acknowledgement that HILT is not hemmed in by parochial constraints, and a clear signal that the initiative wants to pursue the best ideas and practices available. There will also be demonstrations of diverse pedagogies from different fields, and of new ideas in teaching, data collection, and analysis, involving faculty and staff members and students. An accompanying resource fair will make information broadly available about Harvard’s current teaching resources: FAS’s Bok Center for Teaching and Learning (see its website here); Harvard Business School’s Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning; the many library and museum personnel involved in instruction; and representatives of the instructional technology teams who help professors prepare course materials and tools.

Infrastructure. Contemporary teaching is more technologically based than were the lectures of yore, more visual in content, often highly experiential, and increasingly international (sometimes even in real time).  To encourage professors and students to explore how best to organize the course spaces in which they interact, the initiative will support experimental configurations of classrooms at strategic places around campus, and then pay to fit them out. The venues will be chosen not only to maximize use by teachers and students throughout Harvard, but also to highlight principles the schools may wish to make in their subsequent classroom renovations, refittings, or construction.

There is more than passing interest in this kind of innovation. During FAS’s protracted discussion of curriculum revision in the middle of the last decade, several professors advocated investing in updated classrooms and teaching spaces suited for approaches other than lecturing. FAS has created new teaching laboratories for its revamped, problem-based introductory science sequences, for instance, the better to accommodate hands-on experiments and the doing of science, even in entry-level courses with large enrollments. And with increasing use of online tools and interactive classes, several faculties have cast envious eyes on the theater-style rooms purpose-built for the faculty-student interaction that underlies Harvard Business School’s case method of instruction.

Evaluation. How do faculty members know whether their teaching, or changes in their teaching, work? The whole realm of inquiry that President Faust described as “thinking about assessment in different ways—how we evaluate students, faculty, methods, and courses and programs” is crucial if a broad push for innovation and experimentation is to yield meaningful findings and application of fruitful discoveries. And so evaluation is an essential part of HILT’s program from its inception.

A nucleus for doing this work has been created within the office of the president and provost, which has led to the creation of a new post. The director of assessment and evaluation will be able to work with professors and others to devise appropriate questions, advise on data, and perform the analyses to see whether, say, students who attend class perform better than those who take lectures in at some other time through an online recording.

As HILT innovation grants yield new teaching ideas, classroom infrastructure is rebuilt, and evaluation proceeds, the direction and scope of its activity will expand and change.

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