Harvard’s response to the novel coronavirus Tuesday triggered perhaps one of the largest sudden pedagogical shifts in University history, as undergraduates are required to move off campus and classes transition to an online format.
In the wake of the changes, several Harvard faculty members said that, while they still need to iron out several details, they felt largely prepared to deliver classes online for the rest of the semester.
The University announced a number of measures to reduce risk to affiliates in emails Tuesday, including transitioning to online learning, canceling gatherings of more than 25 people, and requiring that College students vacate their dorms by Sunday.
Last week, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay told FAS members at their monthly Faculty Meeting to prepare for the possibility of delivering lectures via Zoom, a video communication platform. The University has added Zoom to course websites and is offering training on the platform to course instructors.
Molecular and Cellular Biology professor Hopi E. Hoekstra, one of the head instructors for Life Sciences 1B: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Genetics, Genomics, and Evolution,” said the course will hold lectures and sections online. For the lab component of the course, teaching fellows and preceptors will record videos of them performing the labs themselves; they will then provide their collected data to students, and students will analyze and interpret them as an assignment.
“Of course, we would love it if students had hands-on experience, but I think that the second best option is being able to watch somebody do those steps,” Hoekstra said. “This was a sort of happy medium between, you know, having the students actually do the lab, versus just explaining the lab in words or getting a written assignment.”
The transition to remote learning poses particular challenges for departments which rely heavily on in-person experiences, such as labs and studio time. The Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are particularly affected.
AFVS Director of Undergraduate Studies Matthew Saunders ’97 said his department is working to distribute kits of art supplies — from painting supplies for the class Saunders teaches, Gen Ed 1114: “Painting's Doubt: A Studio Course,” to tablets for animation classes — to allow students to continue making work remotely. The department may also ship kits to students who are unable to pick them up this week.
Saunders said sections in his Gen Ed course would likely continue over Zoom, with students potentially uploading photos of intermediate drafts of artwork.
Saunders said one issue that has repeatedly arisen in internal planning discussions is the issue of time zone differences for international students participating over Zoom.
“We’re just gathering information of how many students are in that boat, and we'll make accommodations accordingly,” Saunders said.
Certain film classes within AFVS, however, may not be able to continue as usual with students away from campus — particularly those which rely on films available through the Harvard Film Archive, according to AFVS lecturer Katherine S. Rennebohm.
Rennebohm said that while roughly four-fifths of the films used in her course AFVS 70: “The Art of Film” are accessible digitally, they may not be available in a format that students can view on their personal computers.
“Realistically, it will be very challenging,” Rennebohm said. “I designed the class that way specifically to give students access to the kind of material that we really can only access here and it’s kind of an incredible resource.”
Likewise, many SEAS courses rely on in-person labs and hands-on projects as a major part of their pedagogy.
Physics professor Eric Mazur said that while his course Applied Physics 50B: “Physics as a Foundation for Science and Engineering, Part II” does not have lectures, he will have to rely on a number of digital platforms in addition to Zoom to continue group work and projects.
Mazur said he was very disappointed that students would not be able to work together on projects in person. For example, students in the course are currently in the middle of building a safe.
“Deep down, learning is a social experience,” Mazur said. “It’s not something you can push entirely online.”
For upcoming projects, Mazur will give materials to at least two people on each team so the team can build together virtually, though students living in different time zones may pose a difficulty.
“Overcoming the time zone difference for activities that need to be synchronous is one thing that I haven’t completely figured out yet,” Mazur said.
Physics preceptor David E. Abrams wrote that the lab component of his course Engineering Sciences 54: “Electronics for Engineers” would also be difficult to continue online.
“My guess is we will have to transition to paper designs rather than the current hands-on experience,” Abrams wrote. “I think this is unfortunate for the students since building circuits and using lab equipment is not only fun, but also a valuable learning experience.”
“I have no doubt we will persevere, but I am saddened by the students’ loss,” Abrams wrote.
In addition to preparations being made in the classroom, Harvard University Information Technology spokesperson Tim Bailey wrote in an emailed statement that HUIT staff have been working “around the clock” to prepare to support remote learning.
“We are working closely with key vendors, including Zoom, to ensure continuity and stability of services throughout this period of exceptionally high demand from the Harvard community,” Bailey wrote. “We are closely monitoring our network infrastructure and are prepared to quickly expand capacity of our support services to meet increased demand.”
—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen contributed reporting.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.