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Social Science Faculty Transform Their Courses for Online Learning

Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department.
Littauer Center for Public Administration Building is home to the Economics Department. By Mia B. Frothingham
By Natalie L. Kahn, Crimson Staff Writer

During an unprecedented semester of virtual learning, Social Sciences professors teaching large lecture courses say they are working hard to keep their classes as engaging and interactive as possible.

Many professors — including those teaching hundreds of students in popular Economics, Psychology, and Government classes — have completely altered the structure of their traditional courses, opting to include special speaker series, virtual social opportunities, and increased group projects.

Some faculty stressed the difficulty of losing the face-to-face aspect of their large, in-person lectures.

“There's something very energizing and wonderful about having a class full of students and seeing your faces, hearing your voices, and losing all of that was really hard for us,” David I. Laibson ’88, who co-teaches Economics 10: “Principles of Economics” with Jason Furman ’92, said.

However, despite the limitations of the online lecture setting, faculty said they have implemented new mechanisms to keep their students engaged and connected with each other this fall. Laibson and Furman, for example, have made their course more collaborative through new weekly group problem sets.

“The continuous deployment of the group problem sets will hopefully help create social connectedness,” Laibson said.

Psychology Professor Daniel T. Gilbert, meanwhile, has completely altered the way in which he conducts his department’s foundational course, Psychology 1: “Introduction to Psychological Science.”

“The last thing I wanted to do was just a bad online version of the course that I give in a classroom,” Gilbert said. “One of the things that doesn’t transfer well from the brick-and-mortar classroom is lecturing.”

Instead, he said he now utilizes a flipped classroom style, relying largely on lecture recordings taken in the class’s usual Science Center setting last year.

“My first concern was just that the lectures are pre-recorded, not live, but I’ve gotten used to it,” Brittany Y. Sun ’23 said. “His lectures are always very fun.”

During scheduled class time every Tuesday, Gilbert brings in a guest speaker for what he calls “Chapter Zero” — a podcast-style class in which students read a few chapters of a popular book related to that week’s topic, and its author joins the class for a brief interview and Q&A session.

Julia L. Abbruzzese ’24, a student in Psych 1, said she finds the guest speakers’ contributions helpful in understanding class materials’ potential applications.

“All these different perspectives from the people he brings in actually add a really good addition to the foundation in the course,” Abbruzzese said.

Government Professor David D. Kane, who teaches Government 50: “Data”, said while he strongly prefers teaching in person, he finds breakout rooms to be a good use of class time. Kane speaks a few minutes and then sends the students into breakout rooms to work on problems, while he and his teaching fellows circulate between groups.

He said he already taught his class in a similar, effectively flipped style before the pandemic struck, adding that he appreciates the ease with which he and the TFs can travel from breakout room to breakout room.

“Whenever class is in person, it’s essentially impossible for the teaching staff to move around the room and answer questions,” Kane said.

Additionally, some professors said they look to find ways to enhance the virtual experience outside of actual class time.

Furman and Laibson are hosting a weekly series called “Economics in Action,” which invites different Harvard Economics faculty to give 25-minute presentations followed by Q&A sessions. Upcoming guests include former Social Sciences Dean David M. Cutler ’87 and rising star economist Raj Chetty ’00.

Furman and Laibson will also host two small-group “teas” each week, where up to 12 students can sign up to discuss anything relevant to economics.

Ec 10 student Rachel B. Mehler ’24 said she was not very concerned about the impersonal aspect of a large online lecture course.

“There's a lower expectation of having any kind of relationship with the professors and the other people in the class, but I don't think that that has anything to do with corona,” Mehler said. “It would probably be like that anyway.”

Gilbert said one difference this year brings is that professors and students are equals when it comes to experience with online learning.

“I try to remind the students, we are all first-year students this year. It's all an experiment. And I'm a scientist, I can tell you most experiments don't work,” Gilbert said about the virtual semester. “But they usually provide something interesting.”

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com.

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