School Goes Remote

Students, faculty, and staff adjust to a changed landscape.

An illustration showing a teacher sitting on an enormous open book with students on screens hovering around her, some raising their hands to ask questions

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

The Ec 10 midterm was scheduled for Wednesday, March 11, but there had to be some changes. As emails from Harvard leaders arrived the week before, discouraging recreational travel and prohibiting University trips due to the spread of COVID-19, professors Jason Furman and David Laibson began to adjust their macroeconomics midterm. To the original multi-room testing setup, they added more space for students to take a socially distanced exam.

When some students responded that they didn’t want to take an exam in a room with others, the professors sent another email: students could take the exam wherever they wanted, within the original time frame. Then students mentioned the potential for cheating. “We said, ‘New clarification,’” Furman says, chuckling. “It will be open book!”

At 8:23 a.m. on the day before the exam, President Lawrence S. Bacow and College dean Rakesh Khurana announced that students would have to leave campus by Sunday, March 15, at 5:00 p.m. The Ec 10 exam became an untimed, open-book “participation midterm” that could be taken at any point between March 17 and March 27. In the face of a rapidly spreading and little-understood virus, drastically changing a mid-term wasn’t such a big deal. Recalls Furman, “We suspected they were going to go to pass/fail anyway.”

Going Home

Isabella Beckett ’21 was sitting in a peer-tutoring meeting when Bacow’s email arrived. Lu Wang, a chemistry and chemical biology preceptor, had her screen projected to the group, so everyone got a glimpse at the subject line: “COVID-19 – Moving Classes Online, Other Updates.” “We all saw it immediately and clicked,” says Beckett, a neuroscience concentrator in Dunster House. At first, she and other students were unclear about the message’s full significance. “Everyone’s kind of thinking, okay, this means if we leave for spring break, we can’t come back,” she says. Then the follow-up email arrived. “It was like, ‘Everyone out, you have five days!’ And everybody started freaking out.” With the new information in the air, Wang ended the meeting. “She said, ‘Yeah, you guys should probably figure this one out.’”

The week, just before spring recess, was one of the most intense of the semester. Many courses had scheduled midterms and lengthy papers. The deadline for senior theses had just passed or was imminently approaching, depending on the concentration. Quickly, many of those deadlines were pushed back or canceled. Some professors began offering to hold classes remotely, but most students opted for in-person meetings before they were forced off campus, says Claire Fridkin ’21, a psychology concentrator in Dunster House. One of her professors scrapped the lesson plan and delivered what Fridkin called “a eulogy to the semester.” It was not comforting.

“Everyone was in some weird, numb limbo,” says Olivia Carter ’23 of Mather House. Emails poured in from professors, campus organizations, administrators. Students scrambled to handle schoolwork, plan travel, and pack or arrange storage. Carter saw some students crying in the Yard; at night, parties were omnipresent. But there were unexpectedly mundane scenes, too. “It was weirdly quiet in the Yard,” Carter says. “Some people were trying to throw Frisbees, and there were still tours going on. People were touching the statue.”

The period was no less strange for professors. “It wasn’t like we had received an email the week before and we were just sitting on the information,” says assistant professor of philosophy Samantha Matherne. “We all got the email at the same time.” Shortly after the announcement, she was in Boylston Hall as one of the instructors for a Humanities 10b lecture. As the class began, the day’s lecturer recommended that everyone stay in touch with their House deans. “A lot of students only get up 10 minutes before that 10:30 class,” she says. “And the student sitting next to me was like, ‘What are they talking about?’”

Jesse McCarthy, assistant professor of English and African and African American Studies, decided to conduct his last seminar before break over Zoom, from his office. “As superficial as it might be, I thought having that background would sort of symbolically confer continuity,” he says. “But then we were told we could no longer be in the offices.”

The Spring Pivot

As the teaching landscape shifted, so did the job of associate dean of the Harvard College Curriculum Rebecca Nesson. Normally she oversees academic programs not associated with a concentration: the Program in General Education, freshman seminars, expository writing, and the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship. But spring recess would last only one week, with fully functional online classes expected immediately thereafter. As administrative roles became fluid during the rapid transition, Nesson—who had worked for years as associate dean of teaching and learning at the Division of Continuing Education (DCE)—volunteered to lead College faculty training.

There was a lot to teach. Many professors who had never used Zoom’s video technology for any reason now had to teach full courses that way. Nesson directed about 900 professors to a Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT) course on Zoom fundamentals. About 400 took more advanced courses that she helped set up. It would be prove impossible to get every professor up to the same speed, though. Some had taught classes through DCE, where instruction is often fully online. Others had no experience apart from the traditional classroom or lecture hall. “So we recruited around 100 staff who normally do completely different jobs and trained them basically to do first-tier tech support,” Nesson says. If professors encountered any technical issues while teaching—they couldn’t share their screen with the class, a student’s audio wasn’t working—someone was there to assist. And if the helpers themselves didn’t know how to solve a problem, they could confer with Information Technology staff over the messaging platform Slack. Professors had enough on their plates already, without becoming their own tech support.

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

The switch wasn’t just a technical issue but a curricular one. Students in professor Elsie Sunderland’s “Introduction to Environmental Science and Engineering” course were supposed to conduct three laboratory experiments—including a soil chemistry lab that involved measuring soil properties and performing chemical analyses of its toxins. But the shift from residential instruction made this impossible. “We basically changed the emphasis of the course on the fly,” says the McKay professor of environmental chemistry: “from learning some of these environmental-science data-collection and -measurement techniques, to data visualization and statistical analyses.” As a result, rather than conduct in-person research for their final projects, students worked with large environmental datasets and did analyses on topics of their choosing.

In “Chamber Music Performance,” group rehearsals were impossible; preceptors weren’t even sure if students would have access to their instruments—especially pianists. “So we were just trying to work with each individual student and see what he or she wanted to do,” says Ken Hamao, a member of the Parker Quartet and leader of the course. Feeling their way, some groups elected to turn in a combined recording project at semester’s end, with each part taped individually and then merged with audio software. Others chose to shift from a performance-based project to an analytical one. The challenge was no simpler in assistant professor Nora Schultz’s sculpture class: many students left campus without materials they had been using, some of which would be quite expensive to ship across the country. So they found other ways to engage with the course, working with digital-visualization tools or thinking through the philosophical and conceptual frameworks behind their planned sculptures.

For students, a normally relaxing break was much less so. Vacations might have been canceled, but midterm exams were not: many were pushed into the recess week itself. Moriah Lim ’22 of Lowell House, who had moved to a room in a Cambridge church as the campus shut down, quickly switched back into study mode as he quarantined in his new bedroom. “I was recovering from some of the stress of moving off campus, and then adjusting to making sure I studied for the midterms, and then actually taking the midterms,” Lim says. He didn’t do quite as well as he’d wanted. “After the announcement…I had kind of blocked out a lot of the stuff I had been studying.”

Teaching at a Distance

After little more than a week of unceasing preparation, classes resumed on March 23. Because Furman and Laibson doubted that their Ec 10 students would remain totally engaged through 75-minute Zoom presentations, they had planned to condense their lectures to 45 minutes and bring in guests like former Federal Reserve officials Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner, and Zwaanstra professor of international studies and of economics Gita Gopinath for the last half-hour. But despite their practice lectures during break, their first class was still a stumble. The Zoom link they’d sent out to enable students to enter the virtual classroom didn’t function as intended. Some wound up with Laibson, the lecturer that day; others entered a room filled only with fellow students. For about half an hour, no amount of link-clicking could bring the class together.

With more IT staff helping in later sessions, and more practice, problems were avoided. “I’ve been in so many disastrous conference calls over the course of my life,” Furman says. “There are so many different ways they can go wrong, and after the first one, they didn’t happen.” Rebecca Nesson was pleased with the transition, too. “It was astonishing how smoothly it went,” she says. “There were lots of things that were challenging about it. But once we got going, it was going.”

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

There was plenty of trial and error, though, even with the simplest elements. Professors had to decide whether they would lecture live or record their talks and post them later. For her course “Art of Living: 19th-Century Philosophy,” Samantha Matherne recalls thinking, “I’m going to try it live for the first week, and if it doesn’t work, then maybe I’m going to need to revise and switch over to asynchronous.” At first, she lectured for five minutes, paused for questions, and then proceeded with the next segment and pause—an attempt to keep students’ attention for the entire class. “But then that ended up feeling too formulaic,” she says. “And then we weren’t able to actually just have people ask questions during the lecture.”

As the semester progressed, she looked for ways to retain the “heartbeat of [her] classroom.” She’d open the Zoom session before class each day to play pandemic-themed songs (like “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & the Supremes) as students entered, trying to mimic the normal sort of filing into a classroom. She had students switch to Zoom’s gallery mode (which displayed the 40-person class at once) and wave to one another. She broke up section meetings for Humanities 10b with what she called the “hot-take question of the week,” an offbeat query about the current readings. “Are you a Hector person or an Achilles person?” she asked after the class read the Iliad, or “Which philosopher would you most want to have dinner with?” “And at least for me,” she continues, “these moments were so important to feeling that even though our bodies are in different places, our minds are joining together in our virtual classroom. In the spirit of, ‘Yes, we are doing this together.’”

“I was barely managing to keep up in person because of the pace of the material and my own learning styles,” he says. “But then once it turned online, it quickly became untenable.”

Such adjustments—acknowledgments that things were not normal—were crucial for students, too. Assessing his courses, Moriah Lim says he got the least out of a solid-mechanics class that proceeded online with minimal changes to its structure or curriculum. “I was barely managing to keep up in person because of the pace of the material and my own learning styles,” he says. “But then once it turned online, it quickly became untenable.” The struggle was compounded by adjustments he had to make on the fly. He normally wrote notes on his laptop, but with Zoom taking up one screen, his note-taking software malfunctioned. He also found that the Wi-Fi router in his apartment couldn’t handle the increased load, so he had to buy a new one. These problems, in addition to a pair of malfunctioning headphones, wouldn’t have affected much in the scheme of a normal semester; now, it was much harder to adjust.

Others had it worse. “Many of our students went home, either not knowing that it was possible for them to stay on campus if they needed to, or not realizing how much worse the pandemic was about to get,” Nesson says. “And so many went home to situations where they thought they’d be able to go to the local Starbucks or library to do their classes, and then found that they couldn’t.” Some needed equipment that they couldn’t afford to make remote learning work. The Office of Undergraduate Education instructional support team sent needed supplies around the country as quickly as possible.

One student had to drop Professor Jesse McCarthy’s graduate seminar because several members of his family were in Northern Italy, one of the virus’s original epicenters. “That was very, very sad for me,” McCarthy says—and for everyone else, too. “It does something to the room to have someone who started the course with longer with us,” he adds. “And I had to explain to people why.”

There were plenty of reminders to students that the level of education was not the same. “I think [professors] got more comfortable in using Zoom and experimenting with the different uses of the technology, but I didn’t feel like my quality of learning increased,” recalls Claire Fridkin about the course of the semester. “It didn’t necessarily feel like it was better, but it became more complicated.” Sometimes a professor would separate the students into “breakout rooms,” where they could talk to one another in smaller groups. But often in a room of six or seven people, a majority had their cameras off and their microphones muted. “You would hope they would participate and talk to you,” Fridkin says, “but sometimes they wouldn’t. And, I mean, I’m not going to make them.”

For many professors, conducting courses from behind a screen was a slog. Students who began the online portion of the semester going to classes and virtual office hours, meetings, and impromptu gatherings with friends, found themselves getting tired of Zoom calls after a few weeks.

But the adjustments helped avert a pedagogical disaster. Sometimes, the environment even helped to emphasize a course’s theme. Nora Schultz had always taught her students to engage with their surroundings in their art—“to work with the situation that you’re in and not against it.” With students spread across the country without adequate space or materials, this idea was put to the test, and they adapted. Matherne’s graduate course, “The Art of Living,” grappled with why humans need art and beauty to live a good life. When the pandemic forced everyone away, she felt her students approached texts differently—they didn’t just “treat them as something we’re intellectually relating to, but something that’s really speaking to our lived experiences of the moment.” In adapting her lab course, Elsie Sunderland asked her students to do “much harder work than we’d planned” for their final projects—and they figured it out.

By the end of the semester, though, the classes had taken a toll on everyone. “As good-faith as the efforts were that the students were putting in, I think a lot of them were really waiting for it to be over,” Matherne says. “Just because it was so draining.”

Lessons Learned

During the spring, the objective had been just to hold on. But with President Bacow, Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Claudine Gay, and Dean Khurana announcing on July 6 that remote learning would continue in the fall semester (and possibly beyond; see, the goal for the new academic year would have to be much more ambitious. If students were going pay full tuition for fully online courses, the experience had to take a step up.

But the challenge would be steeper, too. In the spring, professors had met their students before remote learning began, allowing a rapport and course expectations to develop before everyone scattered. In the fall, no one would be permitted to meet in person, including students permitted on campus and nearby professors. And while students understood the difficulties of transferring to Zoom with almost no notice in the spring, they might be less forgiving in the fall, when their teachers had had months to prepare.

In questionnaires about the spring semester gone remote, many students reported feeling less connected with their peers. “When they’re on campus, they can be together in the libraries and in the dining hall and at weekly problem-set nights and all of those things,” Nesson says. “Typically, that’s something that students manage really well, and so it’s not something faculty have to focus that much on.” But if professors wanted their courses to be successful, they’d have to help out with community building. Could breakout rooms bring students closer together? What about group assignments or icebreakers? Says Nesson, “There’s a lot faculty can do to make [forming those relationships] a lot better and easier.”

Dean Gay signaled a first: that unlike prior summers devoted to research, the summer of 2020 would be about teaching. Faculty members and instructional staff were expected to attend teaching workshops to prepare for the new academic year. In all, 988 of about 1,200 instructors attended courses put together by the information-technology staff and colleagues from FAS, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (read more about pedagogies it has deployed in “Rebooting Online Education,” May-June, page 18).

At the workshops, 20 to 50 professors at a time, organized by discipline, gathered for four days of classes. Though most professors had used Zoom before, there was further instruction on how to use features that could engage students: breakout rooms, polls for asking questions, sharing a student’s or professor’s screen with the whole group.

Illustration by Daniel Baxter

But the focus was pedagogical and curricular, not just technical. Participants teased out what worked best in their spring courses, and which techniques did not work as well. Long, uninterrupted lectures, most people agreed, were not ideal. “Everybody is taking these courses on literally their most appealing, distracting device,” Nesson explains, “with everything else potentially going on at the same time.” And if students were attending a seminar or lecture live, in time zones around the world, it had better be worthwhile to show up in the moment, says Adam Beaver, the Bok Center’s director of pedagogy. “Instructors have started to think about ways that they can run [the] lecture part of their course a little bit more as a discussion—to invite more student voices into that space and to make it more interactive.” The Bok Center’s website includes several strategies for engaging students online: polling, cold calling, breakout rooms with assigned student roles, active-learning techniques like brainstorming and concept-mapping adapted for Zoom instruction.

Making a lecture more engaging, though, isn’t just useful for Zoom courses. The Bok Center had always aimed to make lectures more interactive. Beaver hoped the course would get professors thinking about what goals they had for their students and how each aspect of their course helped students learn—a thought process that would be useful in any semester. “People sometimes come in thinking the best way they’ll improve as a teacher is if someone tells them the best practices,” he says: “the 10 things every teacher should do, or 10 things no teacher should do.” But beyond some basics, that was not the workshop’s point. The instructors wanted to make sure professors could get their classes working as they intended, while navigating new hurdles.

How could group assignments take place, when “the minute the Zoom meeting ends, the entire campus evaporates for everyone.”

Creating a cohesive classroom community and setting expectations always takes planning, but for remote learning, there were new challenges to think through. Lots of interactions are taken for granted in a classroom. If students have questions, they simply raise their hands. On Zoom, teachers would have to establish whether they wanted students to use the “raise hand” feature, send the question as a message to the entire class, or just notify a TA. In a classroom, students can ask one another for clarification on assignments or peek at a peer’s laptop screen to find the assigned readings. Now professors would have to clarify their course websites on the central educational platform Canvas and explain to students early on how to access important materials. In classrooms, students can walk up to professors after class and introduce themselves or ask questions about the course material. But professors able to tap a button to end a Zoom session the second a class ends would have to be more intentional about such interactions, setting clear expectations for how students could talk to them one on one. Instructors who had taken group work for granted would now have to think about how these assignments could take place. Would a Zoom room suffice? “Because the minute the Zoom meeting ends,” Beaver says, “the entire campus evaporates for everyone.”

Much thinking-through of fall courses took place within departments and between faculty members. Michael McCormick, Goelet professor of medieval history and chair of the University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, says history colleagues focused on techniques that might work even better remotely, including taking students through three-dimensional tours of ancient monuments in virtual reality and visiting ruins in Google Streetview—“trying to figure out how we’re going to do this in a way that delivers not a kind of substitute teaching, but that delivers something amazingly new.” Other departments did the same, figuring out how best to adjust assignments and exams for a new kind of semester.

“The problem, of course, is that this came at a high cost in terms of time and effort,” McCormick says. “I fear that most of us have sacrificed most if not all of our research time and vacation time this summer trying to get it done.” He had several projects of his own he thought he would complete that he couldn’t even start. “Imagine your job just got completely redefined around you,” he says, “and your other obligations don’t go away.” But McCormick has faith in the faculty’s ability to adjust. “I mean, we’re Harvard professors,” he says. “Show us something impossible, we’ll grab the bull by the horns. Let’s go.”

In training sessions, Bok Center staff wanted to remain positive without being unrealistic. “There hasn’t been lots of talk about, ‘Oh, what an amazing opportunity,’” Beaver says. “I think people know that this is a challenge, too. But it hasn’t scared anyone away, right?”

The Fall Frontier

McCormick has always carefully planned his 45-minute lectures, but this fall required a different degree of preparation. “You’ve got to re-do your lectures completely,” he said, a few weeks into the remote semester, “because the structure doesn’t work and the content doesn’t work.”

What did work, he found, was breaking up the lecture into “mini-bursts” and frequently changing the pace. On one Monday in late September, he began his 80-student course with a virtual visit to an early Christian catacomb in Rome, lectured for about 15 minutes on religion in the ancient world, and then began a five-minute break. Then he presented a video from another Roman site, divided the class into breakout rooms for small debates, facilitated a student presentation, delivered another lecture burst, and finished up with another short video. “It’s going better than I expected,” McCormick says about fully remote teaching. “It’s also a lot more work than I feared.”

This kind of course overhaul, largely executed during the summer, is apparent across departments. On the syllabus for the usually low-tech “Chamber Music Performance” is a section detailing its “technology requirements” for recording and editing audio files—including a required session on using Adobe Audition, a digital audio workstation. Nora Schultz’s syllabus for “Sun & Shadow, Sculpture Studio” notes that though the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts is closed, students will be allotted a budget for materials. “This course considers experiences of remoteness and repositions both materiality and the artist,” she writes, “to ask if this remoteness can accommodate a sculpture studio.”

Not all the changes work as intended. Some students feel that professors are overcompensating for the lack of in-person engagement by providing a constant stream of assignments. “Now there are like 90 tabs on every Canvas page, and it’s a little treasure hunt to find what you need to do,” says sophomore Olivia Carter. “I always feel like there’s some assignment that I don’t know about.” But other adjustments are more successful: for her German language class, the professor requested that no one mute themselves, so less time is wasted muting and unmuting. And though classes are going fairly smoothly for Carter, she has friends who are having more problems—like the one whose internet cut out during a proctored exam.

Isabella Beckett says that many of her classmates are struggling with scheduling conflicts. With students logging in from different time zones, professors selected class times to best accommodate those who enrolled, leading to unintentional overlaps with other courses and extracurriculars. And no matter how much time is spent perfecting Zoom, it can’t replace a classroom. Beckett and her friends have talked about the odd experience of raising their hands to be called on, without knowing if the professor can even see them.

“I want to go to class too….But I think you have to give a little credit where credit is due. They really tried hard. To me, I see a difference.” 

But Beckett does see a difference between the spring semester and the fall: the way faculty deans, professors, and tutors are trying their hardest to keep the community together. “Everyone’s going to tell you it’s so awful,” she says. “And in a way, sure, it is. We all miss our friends. I want to go to class too….But I think you have to give a little credit where credit is due. They really tried hard. To me, I see a difference. I appreciate how connected they want us to feel.”

David Laibson feels the connection. He won’t claim that online learning is best, but he appreciates the unexpected opportunities it can provide. When Ec 10 was conducted in Sanders Theatre, a few students would stay after class to ask questions before being shooed out so the next session could begin. Now, he finds, about 100 students remain when class ends, eager to discuss the lecture. He and Furman separate the students into groups, and the learning continues. It’s a feature he hopes to adapt when everyone’s gathered on campus—whenever that may be. “There’s a way in which an in-person classroom is special and vital and energizing, and I’m definitely missing that,” Furman says. But he has not lost hope. When the days of Zoom finally cease and in-person classes return, they might just end up stronger.

Staff writer and editor Jacob Sweet most recently profiled musicologist Alexander Rehding in “One Small Step for Music” (July-August).

Read more articles by Jacob Sweet

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