When classes went virtual in the spring, Harvard Graduate School of Education faculty had to quickly pivot their own teaching practice to accommodate the new online experience for students. Now four months later, faculty share what worked, what didn’t, and how their online classes may shift this coming fall.
When courses went online, what was the most successful shift you made to your teaching that worked?
Professor Andrew Ho: Courses did not just go online, they went online in a pandemic that shut down social connections. I think the most important lesson I taught was not related to statistics but how to establish priorities in a time of crisis -- starting with physical, emotional, and social health, which must necessarily come before academic goals. At the same time, I think I tried to provide a sense of continuity, such that folks who had the means to continue learning statistics could do so with all due support and attention. Throughout it all, I think the most important tool I had was perspective taking. I always try to put myself in the shoes of my students and ask what they need most to learn.
Senior Lecturer Carrie Conaway: Before we went online, I hadn't included any online discussion boards, just weekly individual reflection papers from students. After the switch I added a discussion board to one course, to substitute for about an hour of the synchronous content. I was pleasantly surprised at how well that worked. With a thoughtful set of response questions and a little bit of structure, online discussions were every bit as powerful for generating and sharing ideas as the in-class ones were. And it brought out more contributions from the students who didn't participate as much in person. We even managed to pull off an online debate! I will definitely continue to include discussion boards in my courses, even when we're back to in-person teaching.
Lecturer Houman Harouni: Our best decision was to make the move online a topic of study. The shift to digital teaching is not a minor transition. It involves our core ideas of pedagogy, interaction, learning, community. So it was easy to connect the [current] events to the concerns of the courses. We assigned new readings that prepared students for an in-depth discussion. In the first classes online, instead of pretending all was normal, or instead of completely changing the pedagogy, we encouraged students to explore the differences that the online environment dictated for our learning and for their practice in the world.
Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason: When HGSE shifted to fully online teaching, I was teaching a small practicum seminar. We usually discussed readings and connected them to the students’ practicum work successes, challenges, and wonderings. Without the practicum work and the face-to-face discussion as the focus for the classes, I had to pivot quickly to grounding our classes in other teaching contexts. I asked the students to apply their readings to what they had already accomplished in their practicum work or their previous teaching experiences, which maintained the rich discussion we were used to in our face-to-face classes. Using shared slides for small group work was particularly successful. The teaching fellow and I could watch the breakout groups work on their tasks and join a group that needed some guidance or nudging along the way. I included more “warm” calling on students, who were particularly quiet during a part of the class. We also intentionally added joy to our learning context by posting memes about a teaching topic or pandemic accommodation, such as too many video conferences. The students responded well to adding levity; we all needed to laugh out loud.
What didn’t work well?
Ho: I tried to teach a particularly difficult topic ("the Mundlak model") shortly after the transition, at the same level of depth as I had originally planned pre-COVID19. I think I could have taught it well with enough planning and had there not been the chaos and uncertainty sowed by the pandemic. However, I should have been able to better prioritize and ensure high-quality coverage of the most important topics. This was not the time to simply cover what I had originally planned.
Conaway: I'm still figuring out how much time small-group activities need in the online environment. Sometimes I felt like I gave students too much time; other times not enough. I'm not sure how much of that was the online environment versus just being a first-year professor, though.
Harouni: In the first session, we disabled the chat option on Zoom. The idea was to discourage superficial side conversations. It quickly became clear that this was a counter-productive choice. Instead, we encouraged discussions regarding the chat option. Once it was enabled, the students began using it in interesting, unexpected new ways. We had very little of the one-sentence chatter or flurry of “likes” and “dislikes” that generally characterize the chat box.
Mason: The class was student centered from the start, so incorporating strategies to keep the students actively engaged was essential. I had to cut down on my explanations of the readings, because a “talking head” was not an effective teaching move.
How will you alter your teaching to accommodate online classes this fall?
Ho: I will try to create the same sense of community and collegiality among my students that they create when they attend my courses in person. I hope to convene interested students before the first day of class, so that I can get to know them, and they can get to know each other. I will linger after each class ends to chat with students about the day's topic, or whatever they would like to chat about. And I hope to hold more informal gatherings throughout the semester to encourage collaboration. I will do my best to recreate the same opportunities for "random" interactions that occur when folks share the same elevator or cross in the same stairwells. These are the interactions that can lead to lifelong friendships and collaborations.
Conaway: I'm teaching two of the larger courses this year, ones that might enroll around 100 students instead of the 25 or so I had last year. So I'm building in a lot more asynchronous individual guided practice on key technical skills, like data analysis and interpretation. Then I can use the online discussions and in-person sessions for students to learn from work that they can only do together, like team activities, case discussions, and interactions with guest speakers.
Harouni: I hope to experiment more with breakout rooms, which this semester I did not take advantage of.
Mason: Literacy, perspective taking, and argumentation are even more important in these challenging times. Therefore, I am redesigning my courses to include more videos and readings representing multiple perspectives on literacy development and instruction, so that the synchronous time will be spent in discussions and perhaps structured debates. Focusing on fewer topics and exploring them in depth are also part of my redesign work. Finding joy in learning from each other will also be core to my virtual instruction. We need to be in community more than ever.