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Normally, the first day of classes only happens once a semester.
Not this semester. Harvard students found themselves navigating a second first day of classes Monday as courses made their online debuts on Zoom.
The transition comes a week after students were asked to move off-campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As students resumed classwork after spring break, Monday marked the first day students and professors made the shift to remote learning.
Harvard is one of many universities to move its classes online using Zoom — a video conference platform — as part of an effort to de-densify its campus. In the week leading up to the launch of online classes, faculty and teaching staff received training on how to use the software.
Despite the training and trial runs, however, Monday morning did not pass without technical difficulties.
The 10:30 a.m. Zoom lecture for Economics 10b: "Principles of Economics" — one of the courses with the highest enrollment at the College — was delayed approximately 40 minutes due to issues with the invite link. Divided between three separate “breakout” rooms on Zoom, the students and two professors were at first unable to join the same virtual meeting space.
David I. Laibson ’88, who co-teaches Ec 10b, said he was disappointed the first Zoom class got off to a shaky start.
“We feel terrible that people had to wait too long for the lecture to begin and then had it run past the allotted time,” he said. “We’re disappointed that this is the way the second half of the semester began.”
The Ec 10b teaching staff had about 20 practice sessions leading up to the first online lecture following Spring Break, all of which “worked like a charm,” according to Laibson.
“The only time we had a problem was when we went to the real course,” he said.
Laibson also noted that Ec 10b was not the only class which was affected by this technical issue. “We’re hearing that there were failures nationally at that particular time of the day. So it may be that, indeed, it’s not the size of the course. It’s just that at that moment, if you happen to try to set a meeting up, it wouldn’t work, everywhere,” he said.
Laibson said he ensured his students that he was doing everything in his power to prevent such a mishap from happening again.
“A 40 minute wait-time to have a lecture start is absolutely inexcusable,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with the entire leadership of the FAS. Everyone’s working on this with great intensity.”
While Ec 10b experienced some technical difficulties, some students said that other courses made the transition to Zoom remarkably smoothly.
Oliver L. Sughrue ’20 said he was “impressed” with how easy Zoom was to interface with and also expressed his optimism about the unique potential for the platform.
“You can hear everybody, you have a great view automatically,” Sughrue said. “I’d much rather be on campus, but this really is not as bad of an alternative as at one point I thought.”
Sughrue also commented on what he called a feeling of closeness in the classroom despite the geographical distance between the students and professors.
“I was really impressed with how intimate it felt. You’re able to ask questions to a professor much more easily than I think you would — at least, I think for me — in an auditorium,” Sughrue said.
Christopher Robichaud — who teaches GENED 1023: "Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash, and Humbug" — also said he values Zoom’s messaging capabilities as a tool to encourage student participation.
“The chat feature was really helpful,” he said. “Someone who may be a little bit hesitant to speak in a larger auditorium setting — which is where I usually teach — now feels more comfortable interacting with me through chat, and I can share their question with everyone and then answer it.”
In addition to the chat feature, Harvard Zoom users reported that having the opportunity to see people’s pets on-screen was another positive attribute of the platform.
Marwa Albaadani ’22 said she shared a particularly exciting moment during her philosophy section, when a student’s cat kept bumping into their computer camera.
“In the middle of section, someone’s cat woke up and really wanted their person’s attention and wouldn’t leave the frame. It kept rubbing up against him and blocking his view,” she said. “It was super cute.”
For Xiomara Hipólita Feliberty-Casiano — a teaching assistant for Spanish 20: "Intermediate Spanish" — the choice to introduce her dogs to her students had symbolic importance.
“I think that part of showing myself as my true self is very important for me right now,” Feliberty-Casiano said. “Showing myself with my vulnerabilities and my imperfections, I think that’s going to be very, extremely important right now.”
Robichaud also began his class by introducing his own cat and encouraged other students to introduce their pets to the class as well.
“Why try to hide some of the warm, nice things that go on in a house?” he said. “I just think that that makes things a little bit more comfortable during an uncomfortable time.”
Many courses have yet to make their debut on Zoom. Though he acknowledged that the College’s sudden shift to remote learning was unprecedented and unexpected, Robichaud is optimistic about the viability of an online curriculum.
“I mean it’s only Day 1, but you got cats, you’ve got no technical difficulties, and certain features like chat that I think, in their own way, sort of draw more students into the conversation,” he said. “We’re just Day 1, but I feel good about it.”
—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen contributed reporting.
—Staff writer Isabel L. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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