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Safe, Equitable, Sustainable

How HGSE has reimagined the 2020-21 academic year to offer a rich, rigorous, and supportive virtual experience for students.
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Amid continuing questions about health and safety in the wake of COVID-19, leaders at HGSE have decided that the best way to ensure a rigorous, active, uninterrupted, and equitable learning experience next year is to dedicate the resources necessary to build a community of educators across distance.

HGSE News spoke with experts in instructional design and leaders in the offices of student affairs and career services to understand how the school will enrich and support the student experience virtually. Here’s a look at how the Harvard Graduate School of Education is imagining the student experience in the fall.


Online learning is not new for HGSE — for the last 20 years, teams of learning designers, learning technologists, media producers, curriculum developers, assessment specialists, and instructional coaches now housed at the Teaching and Learning Lab (TLL) have experimented with different systems and approaches for engaging students.

“We’re starting from a position of strength,” says William Wisser, director of the TLL. “We’ve learned a lot about what works for our learners and for the field, and we’ve leveraged lessons from faculty research at HGSE and the broader literature to create powerful learning experiences.”

Experts in the TLL have already started to collaborate with faculty members to help them build or reimagine courses for online delivery in the fall. While content and design will vary depending on particular pedagogical needs, faculty members and the TLL team are guided by the understanding that learning should be:

  • engaging,
  • active,
  • humanizing, and
  • adept at fostering connection and community.

Rather than having students meet on Zoom for every session, faculty members are considering a range of ways to make the learning more interactive. To achieve that goal, many courses will blend synchronous and asynchronous elements. Synchronous learning — activities and sessions where the class is together at the same time — is commonly used to build community, set norms, and dive deep through small group work. Asynchronous learning — activities students can do outside of class on their own time — helps build content knowledge and allows students to apply learning in creative ways. Lectures, for example, are particularly well-suited for asynchronous learning as students can watch pre-recorded sessions on their own time, ensuring face-to-face time is used effectively.

A few promising aspects of the blended instructional format include:

  • Accessibility and choice
    • Students can engage with content in a variety of formats — video, text, audio — and can choose which format best suits them.
    • Additionally, students in different time zones can participate in asynchronous aspects when convenient. When a course has a "live" scheduled online meetings, it will be scheduled to accommodate those in different time zones or will be offered multiple times.
    • Students can rewatch and annotate videos to help absorb content.
    •  Multiple pathways or alternative materials can be presented to increase learner choice.
  • Collaboration
    • Across the faculty: Instructors have already started to share tips and techniques about what has worked for them and may form peer groups to support their practice.
    • Among students: Students will have access to tools that facilitate collaboration like shared documents and message boards that act as supports in and out of class.
  • Diversity of perspectives
    • Guest speakers from around the world are now only a click away from joining a Zoom session to share their experiences with a class.
    • Faculty members have found that Zoom breakout rooms result in truly randomized groups (rather than students forming groups based on who they know or sit next to).
  • Reflection
    • Asynchronous elements like self-reflection in a learning journal support critical thinking and self-regulated learning helping students keep track of how their thinking has evolved.
    • Students may be able to curate and showcase their work from their time at HGSE in an e-portfolio they can later use in their job search or graduate school application.

“The pedagogy always comes first,” says Patrice Prusko, associate director of learning design at HGSE. “It’s not just moving face-to-face instruction into an online environment. You need to be intentional about moving students from learning about theory to giving them opportunities to practice and apply that learning. You need to consider what should be text, what should be interactive, and where to check for understanding.”


Though students may be scattered all over the globe, the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) is committed to maintaining the warmth of Appian Way.

“Community is built by being in relation to others,” says Tracie Jones, director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. “I learned that by watching students this past semester when they transitioned online. I know if I’m going to build community, whether it’s here or virtually, I need to be able to create space for small cohorts to form. This will allow people to develop meaningful projects built on shared interest.”

Administrators in the higher education space always need to start by making sure they know their students. The OSA works closely with the admissions team to ensure they have a robust picture of the incoming class cohorts.

“You need to know why that group of students is here, where they’re coming from, and what their passion is so we can create experiences that speak to why they’re here and provide them the platform to stay committed to the work that inspired them to go to graduate school. We’re in a global pandemic and facing incredibly challenging times. It’s up to us to remind them of why they’re here and why they shouldn’t give up,” Jones says.

To support students and nurture school community at HGSE next fall, Jones is thinking about:

  • Applied learning opportunities: As the education sector changes to accommodate the health and safety of students, students at HGSE are uniquely positioned to connect with others in different schools, sectors, and countries to build new curriculum and supports for students and educators. “We need to think about how we can connect people with what’s happening in the world around them and think about how to solve problems in the field,” says Jones.
  • Affinity groups: While students can connect with their cohort, students need to continue to find community beyond the classroom. A centralized resource center will allow students to easily find and connect with others to connect based on identity, interest, or experience (for example, students who are also parents or students who may identify as a member of the LGBTQ community) and share resources.
  • Regional groups: As parts of the country reopen, students may be able to connect with other HGSE students in their communities.
  • Frontloading connections: “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from students asking if they’ll fit in on campus,” says Jones. While she often gives students space to dictate programming and form organizations, she plans to give them the support they need up front — whether that’s in the form of affinity groups or a planned network event — to ensure they feel welcome.
  • Community events: Not only may some hard-to-get speakers be able to address students in virtual events, but these events may attract a more diverse group of thinkers and students than in the past. “If I do a diversity event on campus, I’m usually talking to the same people,” says Jones. “But if I intentionally bring people together [virtually], they may learn through a lens they might never have had access to before.”

“It’s important for all students to connect deeply with at least one other person at the school,” she says. Today, now more than ever, equity needs to be at the heart of the way those connections are built. “These are unprecedented times and you need to think outside your own lived experience and ask if you can make space to listen. Be open to listening but don’t judge because you may not know what is within a student's means to do at this time.”


The Career Services Office (CSO) at HGSE will continue to support the post-commencement goals and ambitions of every student, adopting a series of innovative virtual initiatives:

For the last 30 years, HGSE students have been able to travel to New York or Washington, D.C. over their spring vacation to learn about different organizations and make connections. While the in-person events were canceled this year due to COVID-19, the information sessions were conducted virtually and, according to Valerie Sutton, director of career services, were a huge success. “Without the travel and associated costs, students were able to access the events from home,” she says. “Now, we’re thinking about how to innovate for next year and adding new cities, structures, and synchronous events. Even if travel is available, we still want to keep an online aspect for those who may be considering it but not wanting to commit to traveling. It’s exciting to think about these innovations.”

The Social Impact Expo
During the spring, employers who focus on education and social impact typically come to HGSE to meet students from across all the Harvard schools. Space constraints limit the number of employers to 65. This year, the remote setting meant that the event was extended to two days. During that time 72 employers and over 500 students from across Harvard attended. The event was so successful, sessions were also extended through May.

Alumni networking
A remote setting offers students news ways to access the HGSE alumni network. That network is extensive, and alums are more than willing to offer career advice to students. Alumni will be active and available to connect with students regionally, and informal networking has the potential to foster personal, career-directed connections. Traditionally, Martin Luther King Day has been a day of service for alumni to sit down with current students for an informational interview. This year, the CSO opened a second event in May with 70 alumni volunteers and 200 informational interviews. Additionally, the Student Alumni Mentoring Initiative expects to expand opportunities and match students closely with a mentor outside of the Boston/Cambridge area.

Remote internship support
Many HGSE students enrich their classroom experience with an internship or work opportunity to apply what they’re learning. “We fully expect internship opportunities for students in the fall and are working on employer info sessions for the summer on how to set up a remote internship and what a good remote internship looks like,” says Sutton. Importantly, students will no longer be limited to a search within the Boston/Cambridge area — this is especially promising for students who wish to work internationally.

Student supports

Students at HGSE can expect to have access to the wealth of resources Harvard can provide. Those resources include the supports they need to succeed and to enrich their experience, like:

  • Details on plans for the fall and enrollment options
  • Students will still be able to receive health insurance and can find more information at the Harvard University Health Services website.
  • Financial aid is still available and students will still have a opportunities for paid remote work.
  • HGSE’s IT Department will still provide technological support and the OSA may be able to coordinate resources like computers and internet access.
  • A discounted membership to Harvard’s Recreation Facilities is available for virtual fitness classes.
  • Mental health supports will be available through Counseling and Mental Health (CAHMS).
  • The Harvard Libraries which have long been moving their collections online. Appointments can be made with Gutman librarians to support research projects.  
  • Access to leaders in the education field and across society — both at HGSE (extending a model that was piloted this spring with HGSE’s Leadership Series and the Education Now initiative) and other Harvard institutions.
  • The Academic Resource Center and Gutman Writing Center will still support students with their coursework.
  • The Harvard Alumni Association gives students access to career resources and can help them connect with other education professionals across sectors.


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