Dean Bridget Long announced today that the Harvard Graduate School of Education will offer a fully online learning experience during the academic year 2020–2021. The school will craft a rich suite of online courses and co-curricular experiences designed to incorporate the best and most innovative digital learning practices, including direct access to instructors and peers, thoughtful and engaging asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities, and significant curricular flexibility. Drawing from lessons learned this past spring, the school is also designing new approaches to building community, prioritizing HGSE’s signature cohort-driven model of learning and professional growth.
The decision to hold classes online is in large part a response to the prospect of continued disruptions to residential learning in the wake of COVID-19. “In addition to the strong likelihood of intermittent periods of quarantine (orders to remain at home), we expect distancing measures will need to be in place through the entire academic year to continue to mitigate the spread of the virus,” said Long, in a letter to newly admitted and continuing students. “This scenario presents many challenges and likely multiple interruptions to an on-campus program, which would result in a severely altered experience that could compromise the HGSE learning experience.”
Long also said that in addition to the public health conditions, travel restrictions are likely to continue, which would prevent many students from coming to campus in person. And moving to Cambridge for only part of the year, with housing challenges, would be professionally and personally disruptive and financially challenging. “Based on our specific context, programs, and diverse student body, we are not confident we can bring students to the HGSE campus in a safe, equitable, sustained way,” she said.
In constructing an ambitious and active learning program for next year, HGSE is drawing on decades of curricular innovation in online instruction, including Project Zero’s online offerings (in the tradition of the trailblazing and award-winning WIDE World), Data Wise, and successful new certificate programs, including the Certificate in School Management and Leadership, a highly interactive and case-based collaboration between HGSE and the Harvard Business School; and the Certificate in Advanced Education Leadership, which gives current and aspiring school leaders a flexible online professional learning experience, with five 12-week modules.
Nurturing that same innovative design, HGSE faculty began to work with the Teaching and Learning Lab this spring, to plan coursework that would feature active learning experiences and strong individual and group connections. That work, still ongoing, will result in a curriculum that is not a duplication of residential learning but a new kind of curriculum, transformed for the digital realm.
“I’ve been impressed by the commitment and energy of my faculty colleagues as they lead the work with our online-learning designers and other experts to build thoughtfully designed courses for the coming year,” said Senior Lecturer Matt Miller, HGSE’s associate dean learning and teaching. “We’ve been working hard at HGSE for years on meaningful, engaging, socially connected experiences for online learning. We’re building on this legacy but pushing ourselves in creative ways. One thing is for sure, people here feel a strong commitment to our students and to ensuring quality and connectedness in the courses we create. I’m excited for the fall.”
As Long wrote, the most important aspects of learning at HGSE are not changing. New and ongoing students will “build relationships with our world-class faculty, who are pioneering researchers, seasoned practitioners, and influential policymakers from across the educational landscape. We will help you to build and hone your skills and expand your thinking by grounding your studies in real-world problems,” she said. As always, students will be able to connect with a variety of resources to support their academic progress and their physical and emotional health and wellness. They’ll be able take part in HGSE’s 40+ student organizations or serve as a student-elected leader on the HGSE Student Council — and build new organizations based on their needs, interests, experiences, and expertise. The school is listening to and incorporating student feedback about what went well during this past spring's remote learning experience, and what can be improved or enhanced for the future.
The signature strength of HGSE’s academic program will not change, according to Academic Dean Nonie Lesaux. “To us at HGSE, the only path forward is to redouble on our fundamental educational mission — to train a next generation of leaders and scholars who will lead for improvement around the world,” said Lesaux. “This is a moment in time that demands further innovation and inspiration. As a faculty, we have therefore responded by designing a curriculum that reflects how powerful learning experiences are nurtured online. Looking to the latest research on active learning in the virtual environment, we have designed courses that are engaging, rigorous, and that will incite students to apply knowledge in new ways.
“Among many exciting aspects of the new curriculum, which includes seminars, tutorials, field experiences, and new ways of connecting with faculty, peers, and learning materials, one is a standout: We have designed a new series of schoolwide courses based on our most popular offerings,” Lesaux continued. “These schoolwide courses address a range of critical topics, including leadership and organizations, inclusive and effective teaching, the science of learning, supporting students in times of disruption and trauma, statistics and research methods, promoting equity in schools, the future of higher education, promoting literacy, the role of design and creativity in learning, using technology to enhance learning, and more. I look forward to a year of robust learning in inclusive environments to cultivate a class of graduates who will engage in a meaningful, transformative career in education.”
Enhanced opportunities for engagement with the field — across the country and around the world — will be among the interesting assets of the online experience. Students will be able to take part in field experiences and professional development in new ways across wider terrain, with alumni and education leaders worldwide now available in more immediate ways. And the school will continue to bring voices from across education into a community-wide dialogue, said Long, extending a model that was piloted this spring with HGSE’s Leadership Series and the Education Now initiative.
HGSE will always prioritize person-to-person interactions, and the school will monitor the changing public health landscape as the year unfolds, with an eye toward planning a residential experience and an in-person Commencement next spring. But as the fall curriculum takes shape, the overriding sentiment is that, regardless of what the health situation brings, HGSE is strongly committed to an outstanding experience that goes far beyond a “just put it online” mentality. “This is not just ‘HGSE online,’” Long wrote. “This will be HGSE transformed.”