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Harvard Pilots In-Person Teaching for the Fall Semester

Faculty of Arts and Sciences tests hybrid classrooms and other pandemic adaptations.

4.16.21

A hybrid classroom showing the large screens enabling a teacher to see all the students, remote or present, as he is followed by a camera operator.

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(1 of 4) The large-screen HELIX system, here deployed in Henry Leitner's Computer Science 1 class, makes it possible for an instructor to teach students who are physically present and see students attending class online, without being confined to a small computer screen at a fixed lectern location; the camera follows the professor and assures that he can be seen effectively by “roomies” and “Zoomies” in a hybrid course.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education


Click on arrow at right to view additional images

(1 of 4) The large-screen HELIX system, here deployed in Henry Leitner's Computer Science 1 class, makes it possible for an instructor to teach students who are physically present and see students attending class online, without being confined to a small computer screen at a fixed lectern location; the camera follows the professor and assures that he can be seen effectively by “roomies” and “Zoomies” in a hybrid course.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education

Students gather in desks under a tent, a pilot of outdoor instruction for performance-based courses

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(2 of 4) Open air: a tent as a potential venue for performance courses—in this case, Sam Marks’s English class, “Introduction to Playwriting,” one test of traffic noise and other variables that might interfere with instruction.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education


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(2 of 4) Open air: a tent as a potential venue for performance courses—in this case, Sam Marks’s English class, “Introduction to Playwriting,” one test of traffic noise and other variables that might interfere with instruction.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education

Side-by-side remote and in-room views during a hybrid class

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(3 of 4) Side-by-side remote and in-room views during the hybrid sessions of Computer Science 1

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education


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(3 of 4) Side-by-side remote and in-room views during the hybrid sessions of Computer Science 1

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education

Close-up views of the “local student feed,” “instructor feed,” and a shared screen during a hybrid class.

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(4 of 4) Close-up views of the “local student feed,” “instructor feed,” and a shared screen during Henry Leitner’s hybrid computer-science class.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education


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(4 of 4) Close-up views of the “local student feed,” “instructor feed,” and a shared screen during Henry Leitner’s hybrid computer-science class.

Courtesy Faculty of Arts and Sciences/ Office of Undergraduate Education

On the first Wednesday afternoon in April, Daniel Lord Smail divides the students in General Education 1044, “Deep History,” into pairs, to brainstorm about the characteristics of their families’ traditional meals. It’s a perfectly routine exercise for this highly participatory course, focused today on the rituals associated with celebratory feasts throughout human history. But when Smail, who is Baird professor of history, and Matt Liebmann, Peabody professor of American archaeology and ethnology, match “Roomies” with “Zoomies” for the exercise, it becomes clear how far from routine this class is, near the end of an extraordinary academic year (and part of the prior spring semester) taught virtually. In fact, this session is the second of two in which Smail, with a student cohort in Harvard Hall 101, and Liebmann, participating remotely along with the rest of the undergraduates, are piloting “hybrid” instruction: teaching simultaneously in-person and online.

In December and January, respectively, Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean Claudine Gay and dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh signaled that they would explore ways in which faculty members could prepare to resume in-person instruction during the 2021-2022 academic year. The pandemic was then at its most intense across the United States: it was far from certain that teaching could revert to the pre-coronavirus norm come next September.

Moreover, although Harvard Business School (HBS) had managed to adopt a hybrid mode of instruction, with some students widely spaced in class and others tuning in remotely, FAS faced far more complex teaching challenges. Most HBS classes (and the common first-year curriculum) use case-method instruction, in purpose-built teaching theaters. But FAS offers large lectures, discussion sections, tutorials, seminars, science labs, foreign-language classes, and studio courses for art-making, musical performance, dance, and theater. The heterogeneity of teaching methods, class sizes, and physical spaces available and required, posed formidable problems of scheduling with adequate social distancing, should that be necessary.

In a perfect world, of course, universal vaccination would make such concerns moot come the start of fall semester. But the pandemic makes for a decidedly imperfect world—so FAS had to begin preparing for other, unprecedented circumstances:

•If international students are delayed in securing visas and flights, for example, and have to begin their fall semester remotely, even as U.S. students return to classrooms, courses will have to be offered in hybrid format for at least a while.

•In the happy event that everyone is able to return to Cambridge safely at the beginning of the term, other problems arise. The number of first-year students will be at least 20 percent larger than usual, as members of the class of 2024 who deferred admission last fall join the full-sized class of 2025 enrolling on schedule. They will be joined by upperclassmen and -women, returning from a semester or semesters on leave, swelling enrollment in required and popular courses, again putting pressure on teaching spaces and instructors.

To be sure, these are good problems to have, after the past 13 months—but they are real pedagogical problems nonetheless.

It was in this context that Claybaugh invited faculty members to volunteer for experiments in new teaching arrangements—the sort of classes that Smail and Liebmann, and their colleagues in 13 other courses, are piloting in the waning weeks of this spring 2021 semester. (Among the formats being tested, across diverse disciplines, are small and large hybrid classes with varying kinds of technological support; music and arts courses; labs; and small courses in outdoor tents, and in seminar rooms with conferencing-style equipment for remote learners. Harvard Magazine observed two General Education class sessions.)

“Learning on the spot”

The formidable logistics of arranging the pilots—15 faculty members, about 100 students in-person and another 100 or so participating online, and 25 technical and support staff members—fell to the ultra-organized Rebecca Nesson, associate dean of the Harvard College curriculum, who is also associate senior lecturer on computer science. She said the experiments were deliberately limited in scope—to assure the health and safety of all participants, and out of fairness to the majority of students who are not on campus, and who therefore could not volunteer for at least some in-class learning during this trying year. Accordingly, they focused on the forms of teaching and learning that had seemed to work least well during the current, all-online school year. Among them she identified:

•art studios and especially performance courses (given the health dangers of vocal performance, certain instruments, and so on);

•language-learning courses;

•laboratories, where there is both a very fixed quantity of space, often in configurations that require modifying pedagogy to accommodate social distancing and/or a limited number of students—and where close contact between teaching fellows and students, at a bench or a board, is required but must be carefully time-limited; and, generally

•medium-sized courses in which there is a lot of real-time student-teacher and student-student interaction.

The latter cases are not necessarily space-constrained, per se. Rather, they are limited by the number of teaching spaces equipped for simultaneous hybrid instruction. Ironically, in the spring of 2020, FAS adopted new regulations on when students can enroll in courses simultaneously; these principally envisioned large lecture-based classes where lectures are recorded and a student enrolled in another course at the same time could view the lectures offline—asynchronously—while participating in sections and other course activities such as problem sets. The issue arising now is instruction in classes where the major sessions are much more interactive, and thus not equivalent to watching a recorded class meeting at a different time. In the fall of 2021, it may be necessary to conduct such classes in live, hybrid format—to achieve social distancing, accommodate students still in transit back to campus, or cope with enrollments that exceed classroom capacity. Hence an experiment like that with Smail and Liebmann’s Gen Ed course.

Nesson said preparing for and conducting the experiments quickly yielded some useful results. There are masks adapted for safe singing—but the acoustics for classes staged outdoors are sensitive to ambient traffic noise and nearby building walls (as tenting in Sever Quad demonstrated). Masking presents more formidable obstacles for language learning, given the importance of seeing faces and lips.

As for the hybrid classes, she said, faculty members’ and students’ experiences—anecdotal and as assessed in forthcoming surveys—will be revealing. Do professors feel comfortable with the technology, as built into Harvard Hall 101, previously adapted for Harvard Division of Continuing Education classes, and in Harvard Hall 202, which is being used to test temporary installations? Can students hear everything going on—and see, and feel included in participatory exercises? “You experience how fundamental [having] the technology functioning well is,” she said. During Smail and Liebmann’s class, for instance, the in-classroom and remote sound levels were out of balance, making it necessary for listers to toggle their volume continually.

Thus the pilots, in part, were an exercise in “stretching our legs,” Nesson explained: when technicians turn on the equipment, does it work—and is the set-up in one space portable to another?

As the experienced teachers leading the three Gen Ed pilots use the technology, she continued, observers can see them “learning on the spot.” She and her team will want to hear not only how the course leaders assess their sessions, but also how their heterogeneous student cohorts react.

One thing is unmistakably clear already, Nesson said: “the great joy and emotion from the students and faculty coming back into the classroom” together after a year-plus of interaction mediated by Zoom. She saw “palpable excitement” among students convening in class, even masked and socially distanced—a phenomenon promptly captured in selfies. “It’s a little daunting,” she continued. “It’s going to be very emotional when people come back.”

Looking toward fall, she said, “It would be a good outcome if we don’t have to use any of it,” referring to the hybrid technology, the technical support teams, and the new teaching techniques professors have practiced. But in the event, FAS will have learned a good deal about how to proceed.

Halls of mirrors

Hybrid instruction, particularly, “does require pedagogical modifications in [instructors’] teaching plan,” Nesson acknowledged. “They have to think, ‘How does this work in this space?’” The teaching space, in fact, can seem a hall of mirrors: a professor and students in a physical place; a camera capturing the “local student feed” and another capturing the “instructor feed” (see photographs in gallery above). Perhaps a screen projecting a remote lecturer or guest is present in the room, as well as on students’ screens. And, facing the professor, a huge pair of monitors on which to take it all in: the “roomies,” the “Zoomies,” any beamed-in participating guest, and perhaps exhibits being shared on a screen.

Caroline Light volunteered for hybrid teaching of her largely lecture-based Gen Ed 1073 class, “Guns in America: A Love Story,” partly for what she called a “very selfish” reason: “I want to know how the technology works,” but also, as director of undergraduate studies and senior lecturer on studies of women, gender, and sexuality, to share that knowledge with her colleagues. “It was a no-brainer.”

A couple of weeks before her pilot classes this month, she spent an hour with the technical support team. To her amazement, they had arranged for a dozen people to sit in for her practice run-through at teaching, working with the videographer, seeing how it worked when people raised their hands, physically and virtually: “I could practice in occupying the space and navigating it.” She remarked on “how much labor and time from the tech group and administrators has made this possible”—including arranging to deliver a special COVID-19 test to her on the Sunday before the scheduled class meeting. (Student volunteers had to undergo additional tests, too, and to navigate a blizzard of emailed instructions on preparing for the pilot classes.)

Efforts like that made the pilot “a not-so-heavy lift for me and my students” when they convened on April 12—along with a four-person technical team and guest lecturer Matt Miller, a professor at Northeastern and Harvard public-health adjunct professor of epidemiology. His exhibit-filled presentation on the role of guns in suicide went off without a hitch, and the room, Harvard Hall 202, suffered nary a technical glitch throughout.

In view of the resources being mustered, Light said, “I’m really lucky to be part of an institution that makes this kind of investment in its pedagogy—it’s incredible at an R-1 [research-focused] university.”

As Nesson had noted, the personal impact was even more resonant. When the class ended, Light told the eight students present, “Thank all of you for being here, it’s so good to see people,” her voice cracking. In a subsequent conversation, Light reported, the senior who volunteered to be in the classroom told her how important it was to have an opportunity for that experience in her waning weeks as a Harvard undergraduate. Another said, “It’s just so moving.”

The students may not have fully appreciated how moving the pilot was for Light, too: she had been teaching the same course, in the same room, Harvard Hall 202, when Harvard dispersed everyone from campus at the beginning of spring recess in March 2020. “Just to walk back into that classroom and see my students,” she said, “it was just a rush of emotions.”

Smail and Liebmann had taught their history course twice before, traditionally. When Dean Claybaugh sought volunteers for the pilot exercises, Smail said, he was “curious and wanted to be a good citizen.” Liebmann, who did not teach during the disrupted spring 2020 term, said he had assumed that going online would be a minimal transition from familiar practices—a misconception happily corrected by FAS’s training for teachers during last summer.

Smail also noted that as he talked to colleagues at other universities around the country, some reported that their students had been given a choice between in-person and remote learning, but faculty members were not: they were simply tossed abruptly into hybrid teaching. Often, that meant the impossible task of trying to engage both the students in front of them and the students represented by tiny thumbnail images in a Zoom gallery on their laptops: “A nightmare,” he said.

After working on their class plan with experts at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Liebmann said, he and Smail approached the hybrid pilot as an experiment, “to see if we could break the machine.” When they taught their class in person, it was highly “object-based,” he said, drawing on the museum collections. With the museums closed and the students remote, they had to devise oxymoronic “virtual objects” and to probe ways to maintain their interactive class style.

Despite being shown a video of the Harvard Hall classroom with its large monitors set up to follow everything and everyone, Smail said, teaching in that environment has its challenges: for one thing, he had to get used to being followed by a cameraman. His aim was to “teach our usual class with as little friction as possible,” minimizing the need to “teach differently.” In the event, he reported not feeling “in harness” to the classroom’s capabilities. A run-through with technicians and with the course teaching fellow proved “super helpful,” and the experience itself was “liberating.”

The initial student reaction was good, too, Smail reported. Despite the occasional audio issues, students reported feeling a part of the class, wherever they were. When students present and remote were paired with each other for exercises, he said, “Once it got going, there was this murmur, a sea of conversation as they were all looking at their laptops talking to someone”—and even turning their screens to him to show how it was going. Given Harvard students’ outspokenness, he said, “The fact that they didn’t talk about [difficulties] was meaningful.”

In a nod toward the food-themed content that day, Smail was able to celebrate the class by sharing doughnuts with those present at the end of the day—a pleasure denied teachers and learners for more than a year now. He reported that a senior, aware that this was a last in-person class, said, “This was really meaningful to me.”

And in the larger perspective, when compared to colleagues’ experiences on other campuses, Smail said Harvard made the right call to move learning online, and stick with it, rather than flipping between in-person and online classes as COVID-19 cases waxed and waned. Having made the decision, FAS was able to invest in much better remote learning, with the result that “We all knew what we were doing”—echoing Liebmann’s point about training last summer.

And come what may, the FAS continues to invest in the teaching that will take place in the coming academic year. 

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