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Ready for the New Normal, Remote but Connected

As spring break comes to a close, HGSE prepares to resume classes — embracing the three priorities of health, academic progress, and community.
Longfellow

As the first week of this new “normal” came to a close and we pivoted from “crisis” mode (how are we going to physically close a campus but still teach and learn?) to “back to business” (but in a completely new way), where do things stand at the Ed School as students and faculty head back to class (virtually) on Monday?

To navigate and respond productively in this new era, the school has embraced three priorities, which are helping to frame all decision-making and goal-setting at the Ed School.

Health and wellbeing

Students: Learn remotely
Faculty: Teach remotely
Staff: Work remotely

Please see the HGSE coronavirus response site for the latest information.

As Dean Bridget Long noted in a virtual community meeting last week, the school is focused, first and foremost, on safeguarding the health and wellness of its students, faculty, and staff. The Ed School is doing its part to “get ahead and slow the spread of the coronavirus and protect our most vulnerable,” she said. This started with an effort to help students, faculty, and staff transition to a virtual campus after spring break by moving all classes and all administrative work online, using Zoom and other modes of remote connection. It was followed on March 18 with the closure of all campus buildings, including areas like Gutman Library and Café, which had initially remained open. The school’s instructional support specialists and human resources teams began offering daily Zoom sessions for anyone to ask questions, learn, or share concerns. All school business is now being conducted online.

Academic progress for our students

From day one, when it became clear that there was going to be a shift in how classes were taught once students returned from spring break — moving from the physical campus to the virtual Zoom world — the school has been mindful of how this disruption was going to affect students. Master’s students only have a couple of months left to their programs, and doctoral students need to make continued academic progress. Getting students and faculty prepared was a critical priority.

Units across the school — master's program directors and administrators, faculty licensure leads, the Ed.L.D. team, the doctoral program team, the Harvard Teacher Fellows — mobilized rapidly over the past week to consider the student experience and the academic, social, and professional support structure they could offer, partnering with teams in Information Technology, the Teaching and Learning Lab, the Office of Career Services, and offices across HGSE.

"It was a week where we experienced the best of HGSE in so many respects — the talent, the sense of care, and community among the faculty and our administrative staff; our collective commitment to student supports; and, most clearly, our ability to mobilize in service of our mission," said Academic Dean Nonie Lesaux in a letter to faculty at week's end. "As Bridget has reminded us, our priorities have to be clear: health and safety, academic progress for our students, and community and connections for us all. Next week, a new chapter begins, and we will continue to push forward with purpose, impact, and community in mind."

Some faculty have had experience with teaching with online tools, through Professional Education courses or when they bring speakers virtually into their classrooms. For those faculty, the transition to virtual is less novel, with possible adjustments to what is going to be taught. Professor Fernando Reimers, for example, already planned on Zooming in a guest speaker for his first post-spring break class: Earl Phalen, the founder and CEO of the Phalen Leadership Academies, an organization serving 10,000 children from low-income backgrounds. What Reimers has changed for next week is the conversation topic.

“We will begin our next class discussing in what ways this pandemic, and the responses to it, have opened our eyes to the needs and perspectives of others we seek to serve,” Reimers says. “One of the priorities of Phalen’s network over the last few days has been how to sustain the education of the children we serve through this crisis, when school attendance is not possible. That will become a central focus of our conversation, which will be immensely valuable in a course designed to cultivate a mindset of abundance and possibility, of learning to find goodness everywhere and at all times.”

"The determination and spirit of caring I’ve seen from our teaching teams — faculty, teaching fellows, faculty assistants, and so many others — has been incredible. We may be physically distancing, but we are socially strong."

For Lecturer Rhonda Bondie, much will stay the same when her class goes virtual next week. They will continue to meet at their regular class time, and she’ll still lecture and facilitate small group discussions. What will feel different, she says, is context.

“When people gather together it creates an atmosphere where we feel each other’s feelings through all of our senses — we feel and hear each other’s breathing,” she says. “Online, we are limited to partial sight and limited sound. We literally don’t get the feeling of the crowd.” Online, each student will be coming from a different space. “Even the weather and the time of day will be different for our students. Some students will have their own children and other family members joining in our class while other students may be completely alone in their space. When learning online, we are going forward with learning while all kinds of things might be happening for individual students that would normally stop all action in a face-to-face class.”

Other faculty members, like Carrie Conaway, took advantage of a “practice run” teaching session this week offered by the Teaching and Learning Lab, where she demoed her first Zoom lesson ahead of time with “practice” students. (The sessions are among a variety of pedagogical supports the TLL is offering for teaching remotely.)

“I’m new on the faculty this year and have never taught via Zoom before, and neither have my TFs,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that all of us got some time to practice before we start teaching this way live next week.” During the 30-minute run, she says she learned tricks she wouldn’t have known otherwise. “I was able to see what breakout rooms look like from a student perspective so I can help them understand how to use features like the whiteboards and how to ‘ask for help.’ It also helped me plan ahead for how to give students real-time access to the information and resources they need to be able to do small breakout discussions effectively.”

For students, individual coaching on Zoom was offered through the school’s IT department this week, and the Office of Student Affairs began offering virtual drop-in sessions for students to be able to ask questions about how the rest of the semester will play out, including housing and medical care.

Gutman Library’s physical space closed this week, but the library itself remained open online. As Alex Hodges, director of the library, points out, “much but not all of Harvard Library has been a digital library for a long time,” well before the coronavirus shut down campus. Harvard’s extensive system offers e-books, online library tutorials, streaming media, and a vast collection of digitized primary sources and special collections. “Library services have always evolved to embrace automation and to privilege online support for distance learning, students and scholars abroad, and work from wherever one has Wi-Fi and a web-accessible device.”

Hodges says the only changes have to do with converting most face-to-face services to fully online delivery. For example, research service consultations with Gutman librarians, writing services, and course-related library instruction are now being done via Zoom and Canvas. Gutman librarians also looked through each spring course’s required readings to see which could be offered in a digital format. When a digital version wasn’t available, the library worked with faculty to find alternative digital material.

"When learning online, we are going forward with learning while all kinds of things might be happening for individual students that would normally stop all action in a face-to-face class."

Matthew Miller, associate dean for learning and teaching at HGSE, says that despite the fast pace needed to make unprecedented changes in just a few days, he feels the school is ready to jump back into teaching and learning when students return from spring break next week.

“The determination and spirit of caring I’ve seen from our teaching teams — faculty, teaching fellows, faculty assistants, and so many others — has been incredible,” Miller says. “As we turn toward delivery, I am especially heartened by the extent to which our faculty are working so hard to sustain community and caring in their classes. We may be physically distancing, but we are socially strong.”

Community and connection

The final priority for the school moving forward is community and connection. As Dean Long has noted, it’s at times like this that we actually need each other more, not less. This past week, as in-person events and activities (including Commencement) were rapidly being postponed or cancelled because of the virus, everyone from faculty members to the Office of Student Affairs to human resources began figuring out ways that the community could continue to connect and share virtually.

Harvard’s Office of Work Life, for example, moved all of their spring mindfulness programs online, including virtual “Mindfulness at Work” sessions via Zoom. On Monday, the human resources office will host a Zoom all-staff meeting to talk about how to adjust to this new “normal.”

Various student programs are starting to create projects together. Students in the International Education Policy Program, for example, are working on a public Facebook group and accompanying website with vetted and organized free online resources to support parents as home educators.

The school’s Equity and Inclusion Fellows created a series of “virtual dialogues” for the community through Zoom to “co-create joy to explore, connect, and promote change during these difficult times.” This includes weekly coffee conversations to discuss topics around equity and inclusion, 30-minute meditation sessions organized by two Ed School students, an open art forum that allows participants to share their work, and a weekly Friday night dance party with a virtual DJ.

The Harvard Teacher Fellows Program also hosted their first hour-long Zoom dance party for current fellows. “It was a blast!” says Emily Conner-Simons, the program’s Student and Alumni Engagement administrator; they are planning to host more, and will include alumni from the program.

Associate Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, whose research focuses on the connections between education and belonging, is launching a daily video series called Books of Belonging, in which she’ll read children’s books that tackle themes related to uncertainty, displacement, and connection (among others) set in diverse circumstances and with diverse authors. She’ll provide context, lessons, and inspiration for educators and families as they navigate the current climate. Other faculty members will join her as the series unfolds.

And a new group called Team Connect, made up of faculty, staff, and students, will help coordinate all of this — leading the work of sustaining, deepening, and extending our community as we move to what is being called “HGSE Virtual.” Ideas include offering online yoga, pizza get-togethers, knitting workshops, book talks, brown bag discussions with faculty, and a study buddy program. With this new world just beginning, we’ll stay tuned to see how HGSE finds ways to innovate, connect, and offer support, as always.