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Harvard Online: Inside Courses’ Rapid, Improvised Transition to Remote Learning

Zoom is an online teleconference platform which Harvard classes will utilize in the coming weeks following the closure of campus.
Zoom is an online teleconference platform which Harvard classes will utilize in the coming weeks following the closure of campus. By Sara Komatsu
By James S. Bikales and Ema R. Schumer, Crimson Staff Writers

Before sunrise on Friday morning, teaching fellow Max G. Ehrenfreund said he expects to log onto Zoom at 6 a.m. Pacific Time from the dining room table of his aunt and uncle’s home in Portland, Ore. to lead a discussion section for History of Science 176: “Brainwashing and Modern Techniques of Mind Control.”

As Harvard affiliates are set to resume their courses this week amid the global coronavirus crisis, course instructors like Ehrenfreund have devoted time to preparing for the move to virtual classes — the majority of which will take place on the online teleconference platform Zoom.

Some teaching fellows said the transition to remote learning will transform the structure of their course and their style of teaching; others said their class will function more or less as usual. No matter how stark the change, many teaching staff said in interviews that they expect the first week to feature unforeseen digital glitches.

And, as course instructors and students face a global health crisis, several said that they waffle over whether academic obligations should be first on anyone’s priority list.

THE MOVE TO ZOOM

Since Harvard announced courses would move online, many of the College’s flagship courses rapidly shifted to digital formats.

Humanities 10: “A Humanities Colloquium” will share recorded lectures on Canvas while hosting discussion sections and writing labs on Zoom, according to Anthony A. Derveniadis-Hernández, a teaching fellow in the course.

Derveniadis-Hernández said he believes the course will transition seamlessly in the coming weeks.

“I think what helps with being a literature course is that we can still talk about whatever text and still engage with one another,” he said. “I feel like it’s gonna be a breeze. I think it will just be helpful for everyone to see each other and just be in class.”

He also said he believes the assigned course readings will provide students with a respite from the global pandemic.

“It will give them other ideas to think about, other things to write about and keep their mind away from what is going on in the present,” he said. “Hum10 is going to be a positive outlet for many of the students in the class.”

Economics professor David I. Laibson, who is one of the course heads for Economics 10B: “Principles of Economics (Macroeconomics),” said his course will continue lecture and discussion sections in real time over Zoom. Laibson also said he believes the course will handle the transition well in large part because the course’s teaching staff are already familiar with digital tools.

“We were using a lot of technology to augment our teaching,” Laibson said. “The fact that we’re going to do that even more intensively I think is less of a shock to our system, because we were already largely there.”

Certain large sciences classes, by contrast, are eliminating elements of their curricula that formerly required in-person meetings.

Section meetings will now be optional in Physical Sciences 11: “Foundations and Frontiers of Modern Chemistry” and discontinued altogether in Life Sciences 1B: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences,” according to teaching fellows in each course.

In both courses, students will write lab reports based on taped demonstrations rather than in-person lab work.

PS11 teaching fellow Samuel S. Veroneau said he believes Harvard has provided guidance to teaching fellows to help them transition their teaching online, though he also noted that the support came during a time of instability for graduate students as well.

“We also were told that we have to leave. So I think as we were kind of packing up, getting multiple emails a day about practicing Zoom was just a little bit — it just added to the level of hecticness about all of it,” he said. “A minute to decompress would be nice.”

Some courses have even moved their exams to Zoom, a video conferencing platform that will become as commonplace to Harvard affiliates as lecture halls in Sever or the Science Center.

Over spring break, Government 40: “International Conflict and Cooperation” held a closed-book midterm proctored via Zoom, according to teaching fellow Pablo E. Balan. Students focused the camera on themselves during the exam and then uploaded a picture of their written answers.

“This exam in particular was closed-book, so they were supposed to show their work environment, but not what they were writing exactly on paper,” Balan said.

‘IT’S NOT THE SAME’

Other teaching staff said they have faced challenges recreating their course online.

Kelsey A. Viscount, a teaching fellow for the graduate student course Harvard Divinity School 2006: “Ethnographic Methods in the Study of Religion,” said she and her teaching instructor decided they would teach the course asynchronously because they worried about the challenges students might face learning off-campus.

“For students who do have time and want to really still get the most out of the class that’s the way we decided to do it without it being such a hindrance to folks who do have a number of other needs right now,” she said. “You have to teach to the students in the room.”

Viscount said the course will ask students to complete a series of tasks each week on Canvas, including watching films and writing and responding to discussion posts. She also said course staff asked students to suspend their final projects conducting in-person research on religious groups due to social-distancing guidelines.

Viscount said she does not believe teaching staff should try to replicate their in-person courses online.

“If classes aren’t designed to be online from the beginning, then this idea that we can seamlessly migrate classes as they’re currently designed onto a digital format to me is very short-sighted,” she said.

Economics professor Christopher L. Foote said he felt the topics he teaches toward the end of his course Economics 1010B: “Intermediate Macroeconomics” are better suited to a physical blackboard than to Zoom, so he will instead post lecture videos from the previous year’s iteration of the course.

“I sort of walk around among the blackboards in Science Center B in a way that I think helps students kind of get what’s going on,” Foote said. “And although there is a way — and many, obviously, many Harvard professors are going to be sort of replicating blackboard instruction via Zoom — it’s not the same.”

The transition to online learning will also present obstacles for foreign language classes, according to Hans M. Pech, who teaches German 10AB: “Beginning German (Intensive).”

Foreign language courses typically rely on interactive teaching through props, breakout group work, and body language, Pech said.

“If you have one hour 15 minutes, and you can’t do all these interactive activities, which make the class actually quite fun, then that might feel like a drag,” he said.

College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that the Office of Undergraduate Education, Harvard University Information Technology, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning have all provided resources and workshops on teaching virtually to faculty and teaching staff.

“The College is confident that courses can be adapted so that meaningful learning can continue,” Dane wrote. “It should also be noted, that very good things are being said from colleagues at schools that started remote teaching last week, and that makes us all the more hopeful.”

“Last week, OUE hosted nearly a dozen workshop sessions on nuts-and-bolts topics, which more than 300 people attended, and going forward the Bok Center will be offering one-on-one consultation,” Dane added.

‘UNFORESEEN BUGS’

Many teaching instructors said they have devoted time to familiarize themselves with Zoom. Still, they said they anticipate a week of technological stumbles and shaky pedagogical experiments.

Despite preparing for the transition, Laibson said he expects “unforeseen bugs.”

“I’ve done a lot of work trying to reproduce what it will be like, but I can imagine that when all of a sudden for the first time there’s 500 people simultaneously on Zoom, something doesn’t operate the way I thought it would,” he said.

Two Ec 10B teaching fellows said they felt similarly.

“I can imagine a scenario where I go into class or I set up my online class, and it’s just not working,” teaching fellow David H. Brown said. “You can’t get the Zoom to work or we can’t get people logged in.”

“I’m sure that in the beginning, they’ll be more upfront costs in sort of like figuring out, you know, how we want to teach, you know, what works, what doesn’t work,” said Ivan Z. Stoitzev, another Ec 10B teaching fellow.

Ehrenfreund said he believes this week will feature trial and error as both teaching fellows and undergraduate students alike adjust to academic life on Zoom.

“The challenges aren’t just with the technology, it’s also in thinking differently about how you teach,” he said. “It’s gonna be a mess, and I don’t think we’re going to know how much of a mess it is until next week. We’re definitely going to do our best, because that’s what the students are owed.”

Linguistics 190: “Quantitative Methods in Linguistics” teaching fellow Ethan G. Wilcox said he worries the online platform will erode the personal connections he has made with his students.

“One of the — this sounds corny but — the joys of teaching for me is that I get to know my students. I get to meet all these really exciting and excited people,” he said. “I’m kind of worried that it will be a little less personal.”

“It’d be a shame if we were unable to have those ancillary learning opportunities from each other that teaching affords because we’re like, not in the same room,” Wilcox added.

Even if Zoom works smoothly, Laibson said he empathizes with students who cannot devote attention to his course amid the coronavirus chaos.

“The idea that everyone’s gonna be able to focus on Ec 10B when thousands — probably millions — of people are dying around the globe, you know, that’s a big question,” he said. “And I completely understand the student who says ‘I just can’t do this. There’s too much sorrow and there’s too much distress in our world, and I can’t focus on studying at this moment.’”

“I’ll say, ‘I get it,’” Laibson said.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at ema.schumer@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.

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