The opening faculty panel for HILT featured Harvard professors Lawrence Lessig (from left, photo 1), Melissa Franklin, Glenda Carpio, and was facilitated by David Garvin. Professor Stephen Blyth’s (photo 2) breakout session was titled “Simulations, Games, and Instructional Design for Engagement.” The audience of 400 faculty and students was asked to confer with colleagues and submit one question as a result of the panel discussion (photo 3).

Photos by Susan Young

Nation & World

Microbursts in learning

7 min read

HILT conference forges path between engagement and distance

“To blow things up.”

Harvard President Drew Faust on Tuesday recalled the words Rita Hauser spoke two years ago at the inaugural symposium of the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT). Hauser’s provocation was for faculty to reimagine classroom learning.

This year’s HILT event, focused on “engagement and distance,” was held in a decidedly stolid structure, Harvard Law School’s mammoth Wasserstein Hall. But, in a nod to Hauser’s prodding — and the support that she and her husband, Gustave, LL.B. ’53, have given to transform teaching and learning at Harvard, including a new digital studio in Widener Library — little explosions were everywhere.

Surveying the 400 educators present, almost two-thirds being faculty, Faust noted the emergence of “an intellectual common space” for pedagogical experimentation. Picking up on that theme, David Garvin, C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, asked the opening panel to debate whether true educational innovation was possible.

Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, responded with a hammer to the wall. She used a HILT grant to create SciBox, a flexible lab and teaching environment where anything can be moved, modified, or even broken. Her aim was to bring “a lack of respect to learning” and to inspire others, especially students, to “not ask for permission.”

In a similar manner, when students in Glenda Carpio’s course needed a way to discuss “race in an impolite way,” the viral “I, Too, Am Harvard” social media campaign was born. Carpio, professor of English and of African and African American studies, said technology liberated the conversation on and beyond campus.

Lawrence Lessig, Roy L. Furman Professor of Law, celebrated the virtues of tuning out. To help him focus on writing, he uses software that denies Wi-Fi access for set periods of time. Lessig submitted the following as a learning innovation: “Going retro” to “create an environment where certain technologies” could be silenced.

The heart of the event was a series of hands-on workshops, from designing a HarvardX course to using blended learning to integrating simulations and games.

Sandwiched between the flashier titles, a seeming outlier sat: “Teaching Ethical Reasoning,” with Jay Harris and William English. That session, however, may have been the kind of unexpected microburst Rita Hauser had hoped to see cutting through campus.

English, a HILT research fellow, dove deep into “ER36: Institutional Corruption,” a course that is part of the College’s General Education curriculum and meets the ethical reasoning requirement.

Almost every aspect of the course was sliced and diced, from the relation of prior G.P.A. to final course grades, in-class and online participation levels, and anecdotal student assessments about motivation and perceived learning.The initial findings were not surprising: More time with course materials leads to better grades; motivation is the best predictor of success; and night owls turning out assignments from 2 to 6 a.m. rarely fare well. Having this level of data on a course was new; the room of participants leaned in with every new scatter plot.

Beyond the data lay the real challenge. English said that a goal for the course was to make ethical thinking like “an inoculation,” so when students encountered challenging scenarios in the future, whether as an E.R. doctor or a C.E.O., they had an analytical tool kit at the ready

Harris, Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies and dean of undergraduate education, reflected on the challenge of knowing if the vaccine is working. He has long had a concern that students view ethical reasoning as merely a “jumping through hoops” exercise, or as too specialized.

For Harris, figuring out how to best engage students with a messy topic, where there are no right answers, is no less than the purpose of education itself, as “uncertainty is the intellectual condition we must all find ways to live with.” If achieving success merited blowing up the entire class, Harris could prove to be the first to push the lever.

The process of competing for “mindspace,” or learner attention, in the age of online distractions like Facebook was picked up by Sam Moulton, director of educational research and assessment at HILT, and Columbia Business School’s Malia Mason, as part of the second panel on early research findings. Both explored the general perception that student in-class attendance, time spent on coursework outside of class, and amount and quality of note taking (on paper or computer) have all declined.

While incentivizing desired behaviors from mandatory attendance to no-laptop policies, Moulton, citing philosopher Henry David Thoreau, encouraged the audience to spend time “striking at the root,” or exploring the kinds of deep questions English and Harris did, while making incremental improvements.

Bharat Anand, faculty chair of HBX, the nascent online learning program from Harvard Business School (HBS), switched gears and talked about the quest to “create something ‘wow’” from the ground up. With CORe, a primer on business for preprofessional college students, the HBX team baked specific learning objectives and engagement mechanisms (such as algorithmic cold calling) into a platform designed to reimagine, not replicate, the case method in an online environment.

Anand was surprised that some of the “magic” he sees in his traditional business classes found its way into the pilot online program, which some students called a “life changer.” Now he and his team are trying to tease out why it is working so well and how to implement improvements.

The HILT conference concluded with a panel on institutional adaptation. With Extension School Dean Hunt Lambert dispelling the specter of disruption — “the majority of the disruption has already happened” — he said the focus needs to be “faculty, faculty, faculty.”

Lambert pointed to what he called Harvard’s “secret lair” at 125 Mt. Auburn St. as part of the solution. The building is home to HarvardX, HILT, parts of the Division of Continuing Education, the Teaching and Learning Technologies effort, and some members of the Bok Center. A skunk works space for “CS50,” a hallmark for innovation in teaching, is on the third floor.

Peter Bol, vice provost for advances in learning, said that the dream of a “one-stop shop” for faculty and a vibrant network of experts on innovative pedagogy and learning research was being realized.

Reflecting on the symposium, Erin Driver-Linn, associate provost for institutional research and director of HILT, echoed Bol’s sentiment. “These events create space for vibrant discourse about changes in educational practice, with faculty from a broad range of disciplines and instructional goals engaging with one another, academic professionals, and senior leaders,” she said.

“One faculty member told me that in 30 years he had never seen such a diverse University crowd and so many talking substantively and excitedly about teaching and learning. The collaborations and conversations that get started here seem to be transforming education at Harvard from the inside out.”

A final thought that will keep the campus air charged came from Jim Ryan, dean of the Graduate School of Education. It was deceptively simple and agnostic about solutions: “The only distance that prevents engagement is emotional distance.”