As cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States rise, more and more states have adopted shelter-in-place orders to curtail the pandemic. The disruption to most Americans’ daily lives has been drastic and sudden—and perhaps one of the most dramatic shifts was education’s move to a virtual setting.
Even before the current pandemic forced school closures, higher education had been increasing online learning opportunities, though the traditional model remained focused on face-to-face learning. However, in a new world of social distancing, higher education has become completely virtual. Meanwhile, K-12 schools also had to quickly adapt to an online model, often with far less experience and fewer resources for teachers and students.
Harvard University—one of the oldest higher education institutions in the country—officially moved all undergraduate and graduate classes online on March 23. I recently spoke to Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), about the experience of moving learning online, the implications for students everywhere, and what she hopes this crisis will teach us about strengthening education systems.
What practices can educators at HGSE share about how best to promote learning in an online environment?
Bridget Terry Long: This is new for so many institutions. Early on, Harvard acknowledged that we would have to send students home and go online. We had the benefit of the last week before spring break to start getting people outfitted with technology and accustomed to it. And then we had a week of spring break where we could invest in our faculty members’ skills.
One of the first things HGSE did was determine our priorities. First was health and safety, which seems obvious.
The second priority was enabling students to continue to make academic progress. That focus on progress quickly resulted in allowing people to take courses “pass” or “fail,” and to drop extra credits. We realized that people were in different time zones, and some were home with kids, making it harder for them to participate. Part of our teaching needed to be asynchronous with video, certain requirements relaxed, and flexible so that students could make progress.
The third priority was community, because that’s such an important part of HGSE’s culture. Our community is more than just a bunch of courses and students—it is also about the faculty and the staff. We’re all adults going through this crazy, crazy time. And we’re all having good days and bad days.
In uncertain times, there needs to be consistency and reassurance. With constantly changing circumstances, we cannot anticipate every question and concern, but if people understand how we are making decisions, and that we’re applying the same values and principles that define us as a community, then that’s comforting.
A big concern is how the current crisis may lead to even greater gaps in student learning. In D.C., for example, there are families that don’t have access to internet or devices at home and school systems that can’t provide that. What are some lessons that we may share with others around the world experiencing this?
BTL: This is a big issue, both in access to technology and how it’s used.
What we have learned, even as we’ve made this quick transition, is not to get bogged down with the technology, but to really think about pedagogy and engagement. Those are the central tenets regardless of whether learning is face-to-face or online. But differences in access to technology and how it’s used are having effects. Some schools and students have access to much more complicated kinds of technologies that I think are just going to exacerbate inequalities. Again, it’s not just “Do you have a computer?” but also “How is that computer used?” There’s already been discussion about how long we’re going to see gaps in people’s basic skills. The effects of this shock to the system will be felt for years to come.
The other piece is that we’re going to see big differences by age and what we require of our high school versus elementary school students. The gaps will also vary by subject—it takes a lot more creativity to do a chemistry course online. There’s an amazing amount of content online, but the big problem is how to separate out quality and what’s appropriate. In some districts, there are people who figure this out for the teacher. This is where leadership, money, and resources make a big difference. Do the teachers each have to individually figure this out for themselves, or do they have the supports to develop thoughtful, age-appropriate plans that can address the needs of a large variety of students? This is where you see tremendous variation, and even within schools, there are differences by grade and classroom of what teachers have pulled together. Meanwhile, many teachers are balancing this dramatic change while also balancing the needs of their own families—another source of the variation we see.
At HGSE we are trying to share the resources we’ve developed for our own instructors and also help build networks so that educators can compare and share what’s actually working with each other. I hope that with a great deal of ingenuity and creativity, people are figuring out solutions to help address these issues and sharing them more broadly.
For the first time in teacher education programs, the students will be in an online world. This cohort presents an opportunity for building creativity for the future. Is this a silver lining?
BTL: New and aspiring teachers, as well as older teachers, have all become students. What’s key is setting up the conditions for a growth mindset, and the safety to experiment. Some people’s information about what online education is or could be is outdated, and the bar is actually fairly low to get started with the basics.
The goal is just forward progress—everything is not going to go perfectly. If we’re honest, even in our face-to-face classes and pedagogy, most days are not perfect.
You see generational divides in how people feel about technology, but there’s also a lot of new things that people are trying. This is where it’s important to connect educators and encourage peer to peer learning.
When technology disrupted many sectors of the economy, there was hope that it would also accelerate learning and narrow learning gaps, but that never happened. What are some of the transformations that will help us leap forward that we hope to see in school systems?
BTL: There’s the optimistic and the pessimistic side. The more optimistic side is that everybody stuck at home allows us to think much more about personalized learning. In many respects, teachers can actually personalize tools and support much better using resources online. In fact, what I am hearing from my own faculty is that when you’re online, if you’re doing something like Zoom or video chats, all the students are now in the front row. In some ways, you can’t hide the way that you used to, and so teachers can be even more attentive to the needs of their students.
If you’re using functions like chat and so forth, people who don’t tend to speak up can ask questions. Teachers are better able to gauge who’s understanding versus who’s not. In other words, technology can make it easier for struggling students to signal their need for help and revisit resources like videos so that they have more time to digest them.
On the more pessimistic side, this has pushed us to adapt very quickly, and whether it’s mindset, disposition, or just resources, not everyone has been able to make the switch successfully. If you’re in a small crowded apartment with multiple kids and one piece of technology, and you can’t focus, and you don’t have time, it’s hard to imagine how to address all your needs and make way for learning. I do worry about those students falling behind.
We will see differences by family background and resources, but I think we’ll also see some unexpected differences. I wonder, for example, about the gender differences. To oversimplify things a bit, if girls tend to sit quietly and focus longer than boys, then there might be differences in how conducive these technologies are for boys’ learning. On average, we might start to see gaps in educational progress during this time by gender.
To conclude, on a more personal note, how are you and your husband coping? As a parent, how are you getting through this?
BTL: I’m just really thankful that I get to sit at the dinner table with the three people I love the most, who I think are the funniest, most fabulous people. I wonder what the boys will remember from this time 10 years from now. I hope that they remember having more family dinners, cracking jokes, watching movies together, and taking walks together.
In terms of the schooling, I don’t want learning loss, but I don’t know how ambitious I feel right now. I’ve seen great gains that my kids have made this year, and I don’t want them to lose that. I’m also very interested in seeing whether their independence grows under these new conditions and how they’re able to adapt. It’s a time for all of us to grow, and I get a front row seat in a way that I don’t normally.
School is hard, being a teacher is hard, and being responsible for kids is hard. This pandemic has underscored inequities that can’t be ignored, and I hope a time comes when educators are sharing their stories and support for each other in a way that builds community like we haven’t seen before. And I hope the world has a greater appreciation for just how hard it is to educate a student—but also how important and crucial investments in education are for our future.