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Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

The future of teaching and learning

4 min read

Task force envisions Harvard experiences after pandemic innovations

Over the last 15 months, more than 5,000 faculty members across Harvard have taught online and hybrid classes. The need to transition to digital instruction virtually overnight sparked new ideas and designs and caused faculty to rethink everything about how they taught.

In February, the University convened the Harvard Task Force on the Future of Teaching and Learning to systematically explore how the University can build on the creativity, experiments, and inventions that its faculty applied to remote teaching during the pandemic, and the novel ways they found, during a challenging time, to connect to both its residential and global communities.

Seventeen faculty, leaders, and administrators from across Harvard’s Schools and units comprise the task force, which has been meeting regularly throughout the spring semester, delving into survey data and conducting in-depth interviews to learn more about what kinds of courses, learning platforms, and technological innovations have most effectively reached students. Later this summer the task force will share a report with the University community about their findings, which will address opportunities to enrich teaching and learning, increase equity and access, use digital education to meet learners where they are, and more.

“The pandemic created challenges for teaching and learning that were unprecedented in scope. But it also sparked unprecedented innovation across Harvard,” said Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning at Harvard and Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, who chairs the task force. “What have we learned from these innovations? What hasn’t worked? What has? Where can we plant deeper roots? As educators, our response to the pandemic illuminates myriad ways to offer a better experience to our campus students and an expanded population of learners.”

The task force, formed with the support of President Larry Bacow and Provost Alan Garber, has considered: How can we ensure that we use the experience from this past year to think strategically and imaginatively about the transformative opportunities around teaching and learning across the University? And how can we align this thinking with Harvard’s mission and maximize learner potential?

“Our faculty broke long-held assumptions about online teaching,” said Anand. “There were numerous challenges to overcome, but they’ve also shown that meaningful learning can take place remotely, and that Harvard can achieve broad access at high quality. And the vast majority of faculty say in surveys that they want to bring certain elements of the online experience back to residential teaching.”

The task force is developing learnings, principles, and a strategic blueprint into the report for the Harvard community. It will draw particularly on recommendations from its three working groups. One, led by Bridget Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Saris Professor of Education and Economics, has focused on reimagining student learning through blended education. “To maximize the learning experience,” argued Long, “we believe Harvard should change from the default that everything is face-to-face. How might we balance a rich set of in-person and virtual experiences to meet the learning goals and varying needs of different kinds of students?”

The second is developing a unified strategy for short-form digital content that “moves beyond the 50-hour-long course as the default format for online learning,” noted Anand, who chairs that group. The third is helmed by Michael D. Smith, John H. Finley, Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and has concentrated on engaging, reaching, and impacting audiences around the globe.

“If we were to start an institution like Harvard today, we’d put as much emphasis on digital content and practices as physical ones,” Smith asserts. “Because of what our community achieved in 2020‒’21, we can strengthen the Harvard experience and engage a global population in the pursuit of community, knowledge, and truth. What we learned from the pandemic we can share with the world.”