Illustration by Brian Rea
Come On and Zoom
Amid crisis and uncertainty, the Ed School comes together (virtually) to carry on the work and to respond to the current moment.
In retrospect, it was clear that the novel coronavirus that had begun circulating and sickening people in China, starting in late 2019, would spread.
And yet the dizzying series of events that led us to where we are now — and have given the Ed School’s centennial year a far different flavor than we’d anticipated just weeks before — somehow still seemed to unfold suddenly, without time to adjust.
Harvard issued its first community-wide advisory about the new disease on January 24, as the spring semester began, in a message from University Health Services. The message read that the university was monitoring the outbreak in China, and it encouraged many of the hygiene practices that have since become standard: vigorous and regular hand-washing, no touching your face, cough into your elbow.
Harvard went on to issue a series of escalating travel advisories: discouraging and then forbidding university-related travel to China, to a wider range of affected areas, and finally, to anywhere at all — and strongly discouraging travel for personal business as well. Also unfolding at a fast clip: ambitious efforts to track, assess, and monitor the health of Harvard affiliates or visitors who were arriving from abroad, and efforts to institute social distancing measures on campus.
Things accelerated on March 6, when Provost Alan Garber and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp sent a community email that imposed restrictions on the size of campus gatherings (forbidding meetings of more than 100 — this would later drop to 25 and then 10). For the first time, Harvard advised the community to begin considering how they could transition meetings, work, and events to remote venues.
But even with the perspective of hindsight, the university’s communication on Tuesday, March 10, still feels shocking. On that day, President Larry Bacow informed the community that Harvard would transition fully to virtual instruction and would ask all students not to return to campus after spring break, which was due to begin that Friday. It was all in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, to protect those who were especially vulnerable to infection, and to limit the reach of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, into the Harvard community.
Amid the mounting changes during that remarkable week and the one that followed, the Ed School — which had been actively planning behind the scenes for all scenarios, even before the university’s guidance — underwent its own speedy remaking, shifting its operations to an entirely online environment; assisting its students, faculty, and staff in a rapid relocation and a plunge into the new normal; and finally closing all of its buildings.
The Ed School navigated the dramatic shift by quickly embracing three priorities, which helped to hold the uncertainty at bay: health and well-being, academic progress for students, and community and connection. Every decision over the following weeks and months would be guided by — and would have to serve — those priorities.
With spring break providing a week’s window to prepare, 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 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 (TLL), the Office of Career Services, and other offices across the school.
“I have never been prouder of the commitment and resiliency of this community in how we have rallied to support each other and to advance our work and our mission despite the many personal and professional challenges caused by the COVID- 19 crisis,” says Dean Bridget Long. “These are extraordinary times, and I am grateful to our faculty, students, staff, and our extended HGSE alumni community for their boundless dedication.”
Indeed, the pace of change seemed to bolster existing community strengths, wrote Academic Dean Nonie Lesaux in a letter to faculty at the end of spring break. “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. Next week, a new chapter begins, and we will continue to push forward with purpose, impact, and community in mind.”
As of this writing, we’re two and a half weeks into virtual classes. What does this brave new world look like? What are the opportunities that online learning may be offering to faculty and students? Can the Ed School’s community — its values and its hopes — expand into the virtual world? That’s the experiment that’s playing out right now. One thing is clear: This community is already finding new ways to support one another — from a distance, yes, but also as close as your laptop screen.
Turning on a dime, the school’s Information Technology unit and its Teaching and Learning Lab jumped with remarkable speed to equip faculty with tools, in-person and online support, and thorough guidance on teaching remotely — largely via Zoom, the web video conferencing technology that has become the centerpiece of online learning at Harvard this spring. The TLL engaged with 75 faculty members during the week before the online transition, providing substantive consultation to at least half. Informal drop-ins were offered all day on each of the five days of spring break, along with for-mal training sessions on getting started with Zoom, best practices in online pedagogy, and how to transition final products, among other topics. The TLL even hosted practice teaching sessions using student volunteers, allowing faculty members to get a glimpse of what an actual online class would feel like. Zoom was already part of the university’s standard suite of work-based software applications — an easy-to-use solution for faculty seeking to bring virtual guest speakers into class — but any bets as to whether the system would be robust enough to sup-port an entire university were not a sure payoff.
And yet, it was. The first several days after spring break were chaotic, bumpy, but largely free of major obstacles. By week’s end, about 60 Ed School faculty members had completed a pulse survey sent by the Dean’s Office, with almost 95% reporting somewhat positive or very positive teaching experiences (and almost twice as many “verys” as “somewhats”). On March 25, the Thursday of that first week back from break, Harvard hosted 7,800 classes on Zoom, with 87,000 participants across the university. Help desk requests had already gone back down to normal levels, and things were operating relatively smoothly.
Ed School faculty had the benefit of a one-stop online teaching shop, as the TLL quickly launched a comprehensive support site with an astonishing ar-ray of remote teaching resources. In fact, Ed School faculty services have become a model for the university, according to Lesaux, with many elements — workshops, one-on-one coaching, and even the pulse survey — being adopted across Harvard’s campus. The TLL offered virtual teaching lunches so faculty could share successes and challenges; it has also maintained a faculty discussion board and a faculty-sourced collection of tips.
“I have found the transition to online learning and to Zoom very positive on balance,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M.’84, Ed.D.’88. “My classes have gone much better than I expected. What I most like is the ability to seamlessly integrate instruction and whole class discussion, breakout room discussions, and the use of the chat facility. I also think it is empowering to students to be on a level playing field with faculty in adjusting to the new technology; they’ve seen me at the beginning of the class asking them for help in finding the breakout button, and I’ve been ending classes asking them for advice on how to make the classes better.”
Other faculty have shared similar stories of trial and error. “To lighten the ‘tech-load’ for my three-hour course (and in response to student feedback),” one instructor reported, “I am trying to prerecord about 45 minutes of content so they can watch it anytime, in advance of our class meeting. Our synchronous time is focused on group activities, discussion, Q&A, etc., and we can shorten class time accordingly. We also open the Zoom session early for hangout time.”
Another instructor focused more on the intangibles, telling students that “instead of expecting a ‘perfect’ course, they should see themselves as part of a generation that is experimenting with new technology and has the responsibility to understand its limitations and possibilities.” Another found that “it helps to change up the rhythm. Take stretch breaks occasionally. Have everyone unmute and say something together! I did a shout-out, and they seemed to enjoy it; it lightened the mood.”
Many worried about how to preserve classroom community. “Both of my courses are small,” Senior Lecturer Carrie Conaway says, “and students said they were worried about losing the sense of community we had built. One idea I had for maintaining it was to set the Zoom for my synchronous classes to start at quarter til the hour and run 30 minutes past the end, with students entering automatically and unmuted. That way they can catch up informally before and after class, in as close an approximation as I could create online.”
Other faculty use playlists to welcome students into the room, or they experiment with Zoom back-grounds or ask students what’s happening in their particular settings — connecting in ways that feel intimate, despite the distance. With no “front row/back row” dynamic in Zoom, faculty are finding that class participation has been rich, and that students are creating their own spaces for collaboration.
Faculty have been more intentional than usual about slowing things down to check in with their students — not only with master’s students, with scant weeks left in their Ed School experience, but with doctoral students (who were likely to experience interruptions that could delay their academic progress), Ed.L.D. students (some of whom were in residency and navigating the consequences of the outbreak that rippled across the field), and their own teaching fellows, who were being extended in new ways as they assisted with course logistics.
“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,” says Matt Miller, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’06, a senior lecturer and associate dean for teaching and learning.
Indeed, students had to navigate breathtaking change — in their living situations (approximately 140 relocated to another city or country), their financial situations, their learning experiences, their dissertation and capstone defenses (now virtual), and in the shape of their job searches and future planning. They reacted with honesty and with a striking level of grace. They received a range of in-person and online resources, including emergency funding from the Ed School, travel and visa assistance, and a range of other supports from the Office of Student Affairs. Students were granted extended deadlines to drop classes and much more flexibility in changing the grading basis of their classes.
“These past few weeks have only further underscored the centrality of emotions and relationships in learning,” Associate Professor Karen Brennan says. “You’re not going to be ready to learn if you’re not in a good emotional place, which so many of us have absolutely not been in. And if you don’t have relationships with and among members of a learning community, you have an extremely limited window into understandings of (and ability to be responsive to) the emotional landscape.”
As the physical campus became quiet, the school’s digital campus roared to life with virtual yoga classes, dance parties, mindfulness meetups, equity chats, and cocktail parties. Team Connect, a group of deans, faculty, students, and staff, launched a weekly crowd-sourced video series, a series of Ask Me Anything events with faculty, and the school’s signature community storytelling series, Double Take, to be held virtually in the spring. Using its convening power, the school quickly launched the HGSE Leadership Series, a virtual speaker series giving students access to leaders from across education and beyond. The first guest, who appeared in conversation with Dean Long, was Paul LeBlanc, a remote learning pioneer and president of Southern New Hampshire University. Other scheduled guests included John King Jr., Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.’75, and Darienne Driver Hudson, Ed.M.’06, Ed.D.’14.
With Harvard’s in-person Commencement postponed, and a digital ceremony planned in its place, community and connection feel even more essential, Long says.
“In undeniable ways, this has been a time of sadness and disappointment. It is so unfortunate that we will not gather together in person for Commencement and all of the other events that make spring at HGSE such a special time of year. Still, I have taken solace in being able to see many of the faces of my students, our alumni, and our colleagues — along with their children and pets! — on Zoom,” says Long, who has hosted everything from casual coffee hours to informative community meetings to hours of planning meetings on that ubiquitous web platform.
Bari Walsh is the director of editorial strategy at the Ed School. She wrote this story in late March.