An Expansive Vision for the Future of Teaching and Learning
Post-pandemic, what Harvard might try in classrooms, course design, and global education
The Harvard Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force (FTL), organized last year to assess what the University and its faculty members had learned from the pandemic pivot to remote instruction in the spring of 2020 and through the following academic year, released its report today. An ambitious effort, it is meant to spark conversation among professors, deans, and Harvard leaders concerning three overarching subjects, a sort of pedagogical hat trick:
•sustaining and building upon perceived gains in residential, classroom-based teaching and learning;
•accelerating the creation and use of “short-form digital content”—learning units, exercises, and assessments that differ from traditional, semester-long courses, but are useful for both campus-based classes and a broad range of online formats; and
•exploring Harvard’s prospects for becoming a global educator, using its faculty expertise, pedagogies, and technology to “engage 5 percent of the global population in the shared pursuit of community and learning”—an “aspirational vision” that goes way beyond the 1,650 or so undergraduates enrolled in each new class, or the 22,500 students enrolled in all degree programs of late.
The task force, chaired by Bharat Anand, the vice provost for advances in learning, defined its work in terms of capturing systematically the effects of the changes in teaching and learning forced by the pandemic, applying those to further enhancements, and determining the implications for Harvard’s mission and future learners more broadly.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard University
In fact, he said in a conversation, faculty members’ online and technologically enabled teaching extended back more than a decade to the Harvard-MIT edX venture. The first part of the new report distills what was learned from that initial foray into translating full courses for free online distribution; subsequent, more focused efforts aimed at smaller learner cohorts and different phases of their education; and extensive, successful online operations at the Extension School.
Together, those efforts familiarized many faculty members with new ways of teaching, even before the pandemic forced all classes off campus. And the more recent experiments brought forth important discoveries about using online tools to engage students, test their command of material frequently, enable them to learn from one another, and form their own learner communities (albeit online): a new form of the collaborative experiences that enrich residential, campus-based learning, for people who do not have the opportunity to access those options.
Finley professor of engineering and applied sciences Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences when edX was launched and now a task force member, said that the pandemic forced all faculty members, students, and staff to think creatively and more explicitly about teaching: “We had to!” Even as that experience recedes, he continued, it has sparked continuing conversations among professors across the University, making this “an incredibly generative time for us if we grab this opportunity” to improve the classroom experience and “set up Harvard’s digital footprint.”
The task force divided its work roughly into three parts, including “blended learning” (in classrooms with online elements, and online with in-person elements), led by Harvard Graduate School of Education dean Bridget Terry Long; content, led by Anand; and global reach, led by Smith.
Reimagining the “Classroom”
Anand emphasized that technology’s educational role is as “an enabler. Pedagogy is at the heart of what makes the magic in classrooms.” That said, faculty members suddenly learned a great deal about what actually works when their courses transitioned from the classroom to Zoom.
It had been generally known, from edX and other formats, that a full-length lecture, transmitted and disseminated to a screen (what Anand calls sending the class out like a PDF), results in passive experiences. Most learners haven’t the attention span to stay focused on what is transpiring. As the report puts it, “Long lectures that were familiar in the residential classroom, or to which faculty and students had become accustomed, did not work well online.”
Smith said he and colleagues quickly realized that via Zoom, they had to teach different kinds of content, and less than they would try to convey in a class session. So they broke up their courses into smaller chunks and exercises, and began to use the interactive and communication utilities online to make discussion and problem-solving the focus of class sessions. Overnight, large numbers of faculty members discovered the virtues of “flipping” their classes (with lectures taped for student viewing at any time, “asynchronously,” and active-learning-focused classes live, or “synchronous”). From the student perspective, the direct engagement on Zoom forced them really to engage, and in fact, many reported that the lessened live class content translated, in the flipped, online format, into more demanding courses and more learning.
More broadly, Anand said, “active learning” had become widespread. Professors encouraged students to use the Zoom chat function to pose questions about material as it arose in a lecture or seminar discussion—and teaching assistants or fellow students could pose answers in real time. Technologically-enabled breakout sessions, organized in seconds, can force students to mingle with one another for fresh perspectives, rather than self-selecting the same cohort repeatedly. Students who prefer not to raise their hands, Smith said, were far more likely to engage using these tools. Faculty members and students could collaborate on Google documents or other shared tools, enabling what Anand calls “simultaneous multi-person conversations.”
In some cases, he quickly acknowledged, teachers “don’t need technology” to effect such active engagement—but now they know how to use it when they want to. (Those who do, of course, know that even as they speak, their multitasking students might be conducting a chat. But, on the other hand, students have long emailed and scrolled through websites during in-person classes; the chat exchanges may have the virtue of focusing their split attention on the course material.)
And the technology does enable classes to import other faculty experts, alumni, or speakers from around the world—all without the bother and expense of a subway ride or an airplane flight. Finally, Anand said, the online experiences for Harvard classes “brought to the forefront for all of us as faculty the lives of our students,” and led to widely popular innovations such as virtual office hours.
The common thread, he said, is “the ability of these technologies to bridge space and time.” And that virtue is now reciprocal. When applied in the context of virtual, non-degree courses, such as those Anand developed for Harvard Business School Online, the same tools—exercises, pop-up assessments, “cold calls,” break-out sessions, built-in tools for peer interaction—bring a new dimension of active learning to what was a much more passive experience a decade ago. The result is the holy grail of online education—what the report calls “engagement at scale”: the promise of teaching vast student cohorts without sacrificing the elements of active, participatory learning.
Those inclusive effects are important and large, and are emphasized throughout the report. Dean Long said separately, “One of the biggest takeaways for HGSE from the past two years was that there’s talent everywhere, and we actually have the tools—and the opportunity—to meet talented learners where they are and engage them in our programs. For instance, when our Ed.M. program had to go online for 2020-2021, in response to the pandemic, we decided to open a new round of admissions to that year’s online program—and we drew learners into our classrooms who might otherwise have never come to Harvard. We increased access for them, and they enriched our classroom conversations with new perspectives and experiences grounded in communities around the world.”
The task force report describes all these efforts as “reimagining the classroom,” incorporating “the best of online into residential settings and bringing a residential component to online programs. Blended experiences can offer new ways of teaching, learning, and meeting students where they are. At their fullest, they represent a fundamental shift in mindset beyond the binary alternatives of entirely in-person or entirely online offerings and learning experiences.” The advantages include livelier, more effective residential classes and more effective online ones, with the promise of including learners who cannot afford the time or expense of residential experiences. As Long put it, “We’ve seen that learning does not have to be confined in a traditional residential classroom. We’ve seen the value of community and meaningful connections, and know how powerful it’s been to give students different ways to connect with their instructors and peers and to contribute their ideas. It’s been wonderful to nurture a commitment to meeting students where they are and incorporating technologies that make learning more flexible.” Either way, the result is a focus on learning and education, not on the format of a course, the venue or where it is taught, or the mode of teaching.
Locally, there is something to celebrate here. The report acknowledges forthrightly “the current bifurcations between residential and online courses at Harvard. Consider, for instance, the minimal connections Harvard’s edX courses have with residential learning and campus dynamics.” One aim of edX was to prompt better campus teaching and learning—something the technology and large-format lecture courses proved ill-suited to achieve. But now, a decade on, the gap is closing, in ways faculty members and students both appear to be embracing. (edX courses were also found not to promote engagement among their much larger learner cohorts; the gap between enrollment and completion was vast for most courses.)
Happily, the report concludes, most of these gains can be sustained and more widely adopted through current practices, including informal conversations among teachers, formal gatherings to share pedagogical practices, instructional support, and continuing school and University investments in training, software, and classroom technology.
Enriching Content and Expanding Community
Courtesy of Harvard University
The report’s second and third pillars represent, respectively, a heavier lift and an overarching aspiration. Anand, who has lots of experience from the Business School’s online program, is a champion of what the task force calls “short-form digital content and learning experiences.” Compared to the traditional “unit of analysis for almost every Harvard residential degree program offering and online certificate offering,” the semester-long course, shorter instructional units present two opportunities., according to the report. Such “modular, impactful online learning experiences” can enrich residential, long-form (semester) classes and “meaningfully expand the impact of Harvard’s teaching beyond our physical campus.” (One beneficiary group might be Harvard alumni, who have demonstrated strong interest in maintaining connected to faculty members and academic offerings. If one imagines linking the task force recommendations with Business School dean Srikant Datar’s ambition to develop access to HBS courses, libraries, and research via recommendation tools hosted by Amazon Web Services, one sees the makings of truly lifelong learning in the not-impossibly-distant future.)
What the task force has in mind is strategy for bringing uniformity to the creation and distribution of such chunks of learning, so they can be archived, searched, and plugged into classes or online courses as needed. Such short-form contents might involve multiple media (texts, audio, video), forms (podcasts, for instance), and approaches (asynchronous/synchronous mixed classes, hybrid classes, online classes with occasional residential components), and so on.
To keep from overwhelming busy faculty members, presumably, and to make the material available to interested users, the task force sees the need for “curation, ensuring that content is discoverable, personalizing its use to learners’ needs, and making technology seamless.”
To that end, the task force sees the need for partnerships—including “services such as marketing, distribution, and translation”; incentives for faculty members to participate, especially where outreach “to learners beyond Harvard” is involved; and a new University-wide technological platform for asynchronous learning (development of which is under way).
Being in position to create and deliver such contents matters not only for Harvard’s own educational purposes, but defensively. As the report notes, amidst huge private investments in educational technology and new media, “the demand for short-form content and learning experiences from Harvard faculty has also exploded. Other educational institutions, third-party online learning platforms, training companies, and other organizations are all expressing interest in short-form content from Harvard faculty including masterclasses, executive programs, and podcasts. Serving learners and our faculty well will require leveraging this inbound interest consistently and strategically. Without a coherent Harvard strategy for enabling such activities, Harvard runs the risk of fragmenting its core teaching and learning mission, accelerating brand incoherence, and creating increased competition for our own internal efforts.”
In a broader perspective, how far might the University go in serving wider learner communities? Smith, recalling his earlier experience with edX, said he was particularly interested in “the evolution from getting our educational materials available to a larger part of the world then, to really engaging” with such learners now. Within the task force, he was an evangelist for beginning a Harvard conversation about how the University can perceive itself participating, digitally, in a “world community.”
In that perspective, Anand said, everything Harvard has learned about teaching and education in the digital era applies: courses are not exclusively residential or online, but both; they are not exclusively long-form or short, but both; and they are driven not by course content but by learner engagement and communities. The Business School’s online courses, he said, incorporated student participation and peer engagement—but did not envision what happened next. The students sustained their relationships, online, beyond and after courses ended, assembling their own learning and “alumni” communities on social-media channels.
The vision for Harvard Global Learning 2.0, as Smith outlined it, is among the longest-range of the report recommendations.
The Challenges Ahead
The report raises, or touches on, matters of University policy and culture that will shape, or even determine, the conversation the task force has now introduced.
• Non-residential degrees. Apart from the Extension School, Harvard requires at least a year in residence for degree programs. Two exceptions have been granted: a hybrid public-health program, approved in 2014-2015; and the Graduate School of Education’s 2020-2021 M.Ed. program (its core degree), when instruction was all online. In both cases, the caliber of applicants, their learning gains, and their subsequent trajectories have proven as satisfactory as those of resident learners. A strategy of promulgating Harvard teaching much more widely will likely involve a reassessment of this policy, if only for a limited number of degrees or degree candidates.
• Outside activities. As the task force noted, many of the new enterprises and instructional channels focusing on online learning have an interest in accessing Harvard faculty members’ expertise. Whether professors wish to participate directly, or through University partnerships, “Many of these activities are restricted by Harvard’s outside activities policies, which were designed to create guidelines for when faculty can teach outside the University and include restrictions on teaching ‘courses’ outside of Harvard. As the lines between outside activities and residential obligations blur, and as organizations sometimes obfuscate the difference between a series of short-form content and long-form courses, the need for Harvard to judiciously implement existing policies while recognizing and facilitating new possibilities for Harvard’s faculty to innovate in teaching is paramount.” And in fact, among the long-term recommendations is pursuing a “faculty-led review of the University’s outside activities policies to modernize guidance for faculty eager to reach audiences beyond academia and to share their expertise through short-form and other innovative formats.” That review is being sponsored by the provost’s office.
• New conceptions of the economics of learning. The report notes that with technologically enabled learning, programs can be designed and targeted to different kinds of learners at different price points, presumably by melding personal instruction with the archived short-form course units. This has certain implications that almost anyone would endorse: for example, training an organization’s leaders in a new skill or strategy, and then introducing managers and other workers to the concepts (something that might not be economic with in-person, residential executive-education classes as the sole option.) The reach and impact are accordingly greater, but the differential pricing of these “cascading learning experiences” may feel strange, at least initially. As the report puts it:
Virtual teaching made it possible to reach people who could not physically come to Harvard because of time, policy, or financial constraints. That has significant implications for workforce learning after the pandemic. For example, although senior-most executives continue to attend traditional in-person sessions, our digital platforms now allow for many layers of managers to attend remote synchronous sessions to economize on time and cost, while large numbers of other staff benefit from entirely asynchronous materials. Combining delivery mechanisms in this way promises greater scale in learning, lower costs, and—perhaps most important—greater alignment of learnings across an organization.
Certainly it is an educational virtue that “As ‘future of learning’ strategies are being rethought everywhere, Harvard has enormous potential to address managerial and workforce reskilling needs through its faculty, online library, and state-of-art platforms.” But the University will need to be careful about how it presents the range of offerings, and the prices it charges, as it enters such markets.
• Defining the University. In the widest perspective, faculty members, as educators, want to teach people. But within the context of a research university, of course, they also want to spend a lot of their time on discovery and creating new knowledge. Increasing demands to teach learners who are not present will not be universally appealing to Harvard faculty members, and opportunities to teach nondegree learners may also be of varying interest. So the market logic of expanding outreach to these new kinds of students—no matter the gains in educating the world, or including more learners—may be at odds with some, or many, faculty members’ professional goals and motivations (and therefore conceptions about what they ought to be paid, or have the opportunity to earn under Harvard auspices).
It will be interesting to see whether the conversation spurred by the task force report proceeds along similar paths within, say, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the home to the liberal arts, and the professional schools. Will there be differences among the humanities faculty and those in engineering and applied sciences, whose HarvardX courses, for example, have attracted very different kinds of followings?
There is plenty to discuss. The task force has taken the experience of the pandemic and used it as a fulcrum to prompt a high-profile, and perhaps high-stakes, conversation—if the faculties are willing to engage. As the introduction to the report notes, “Our lessons draw from our residential teaching experiences, accumulated over 375 years, along with the past decade of online learning experiences.” Indeed they do. Let the conversation begin.
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