Graduate School of Design (GSD) student Marrikka Trotter (left) works with mentor Kevin Lau, who is helping her develop a class for entering GSD students. Trotter is part of a two-week boot camp sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching and HarvardX that looks at innovation in teaching and learning.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Technology to the classroom

7 min read

Grad students help in harnessing computers for their studies

Instead of hitting the slopes or the beach in January for a little rest and relaxation, 20 Harvard graduate students opted to remain on campus and hit the books for an intense, two-week teaching and learning boot camp.

The Harvard University January Academy on Technology-Enabled Teaching and Learning offered Harvard doctoral students the chance to learn from experts from across the University about current thinking and best practices in using technology to support education. The seminar also paired the students with Harvard mentors who helped them to develop a project, enabled by technology, that connected to their work as teaching fellows.

“We need to be training the future faculty of the world, who are our graduate students, in understanding digital technologies, how they apply to education, and what the possibilities are,” said Katie Vale, director of the academy technology group in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and HarvardX course development manager, who led the academy along with Marlon Kuzmick, associate director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. “We want to be giving them the best possible start, both here at Harvard, and as they begin their careers in academia.”

The seminar, the first of what Harvard officials hope will be an annual event, was sponsored by HarvardX, a broad set of activities that includes Harvard’s participation in EdX, the new online learning enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), the University’s presidential initiative to spark innovation in higher education.

The academy is in keeping with HILT’s mission of bringing together scholars from across Harvard who can share best practices, learn from one another, and drive innovation, said Erin Driver-Linn, associate provost for institutional research and HILT director. “This is a fantastic opportunity for us to experiment with a new collaborative program, just as the January academy attendees were experimenting with new tools and approaches to teaching and learning.”

During the seminar, the experts met with the students in a Boylston Hall classroom for fours hours a day. Faculty members, librarians, curators, instructional technologists, and staff members from Harvard’s various teaching and learning centers visited the class to explore subjects such as instructional design, educational assessment tools, library resources, teaching with digital images and museum collections, online tools for collaboration and peer learning, and the finer points of copyright law.

“As we start thinking about making things more open in terms of HarvardX, people need to be aware of restrictions and how they find things they might want to use in their teaching, like media objects, or printed materials, that are free of copyright,” said Vale.

Response to the seminar was strong. Within a week, more that 30 people replied to an email requesting proposals. (Students could submit their own proposals, and faculty could also nominate graduate students for the program.) A joint HarvardX, HILT, Bok Center, and academic technologies team narrowed the list to about 20 participants, and then started looking for mentors. The first stop was the HILT Teaching & Learning Consortium. The group includes representatives from all Harvard Schools, libraries, museums, teaching and learning centers, and academic technology groups.

“We got such great participation. … We love working with students and we are all passionate about educational technology,” said Vale.

One of those eager mentors was Terry Aladjem, executive director of the Bok Center, who worked closely with Zoe Silverman, a graduate student in the History Department. During their first meeting, Aladjem suggested the names of people from across the University who could help Silverman create a website to aid fellows interested in teaching with items from Harvard’s museums and libraries.

“The skills amassed during the January academy are just the sort of thing that will guide the teaching of the future,” said Aladjem, adding, “It was particularly satisfying to have a mentoring role with Zoe, and to see her wonderful project on ‘teaching with objects’ blossom in such a short time.”

The graduate students hailed from six Schools and arrived armed with a range of innovative projects aimed at helping them to better interact and connect with their students, while helping their students further explore, engage, and understand their course material.

The projects included a plan to integrate geographic information systems, timelines, multimedia, and blog capabilities into a Web portal for students studying the history of the British Empire. There was Silverman’s comprehensive online resource for graduate students interested in learning how to teach with objects from Harvard’s vast collections. And there was an effort to launch a new type of scientific journal that incorporates multimedia and peer-reviewed tutorials into a text-based format.

Boylston Hall’s Ticknor Lounge buzzed at the end of the seminar’s first day as mentors and graduate students met in small groups to discuss their projects. In one corner, Marrikka Trotter huddled over a laptop with Kevin Lau, the head of library information systems and instructional technology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD).

A third-year Ph.D. student in architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism at GSD, Trotter is working with K. Michael Hays, Eliot Noyes Professor of Architectural Theory and GSD associate dean. Their goal is to transform an existing two-week intensive history and theory of architecture course for incoming graduate students into an online course.

Together Trotter and Lau discussed issues such as how to meet pedagogical objectives, and how to offer information, typically delivered in a lecture format, online in smaller, “more discrete chunks,” accompanied by specific learning goals. Lau suggested setting up a blog, where students could share information and ideas, and where some students could volunteer to act as informal teaching assistants.

“I think that’s phenomenal, because in my experience, when you give students that kind of responsibility, everybody benefits … it raises the game,” said Trotter.

In the competitive field of architecture, harsh criticism from experts is often the norm. With that in mind, Trotter asked Lau to research a computer program that could help the new students cope with failure. “At the GSD, with the studio culture, you learn by failing … and getting that from a negative experience to a positive experience would be incredibly helpful for those first-year students.”

After the seminar, Trotter and Lau still had plans for a robust online course, but they had overhauled their pedagogical goals, restructuring the course’s nature to teach students “a different way of thinking, versus a linear sequence of facts.”

“We realized … the skills we want students to come in with are these critical reading skills, critical imaginative, speculative abilities to think about architecture as a way of knowing, and a way of doing, and a way of changing the status quo.”

“The January academy really forced us to re-evaluate our own priorities and assess whether or not the curriculum, as it had been developed over time, was aligned with those priorities,” said Trotter. “So the first thing we ended up doing was changing the course.”