Campus & Community

Taking best of innovations, lessons of pandemic education

Task force releases report on how University can create more engaging, equitable learning experiences

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Widener Library.

Widener Library in Harvard Yard.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

The Future of Teaching and Learning Task Force convened at the request of President Larry Bacow and Provost Alan M. Garber starting in the spring of 2021, and on Wednesday the group released its report. The initiative brought together faculty and staff from across Harvard’s Schools and units to explore the innovations and lessons that emerged from pandemic-era teaching and imagine how the University might create more engaging and equitable learning opportunities in the future. The Gazette spoke with lead task force members Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning; Bridget Long, dean of the Graduate School of Education; and Mike Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a Distinguished Service Professor, to learn more about the task force’s recommendations.


Bharat Anand, Bridget Long, and Mike Smith

GAZETTE: Can you provide some context for the work of the task force and for what lies ahead in teaching and learning?

BHARAT ANAND: First and foremost, the last two years were an incredibly difficult period for so many. There has been a great deal of hardship and loss for many members of our community and elsewhere. Yet here at Harvard, we were also reminded of everything special about the campus experience that we missed — and it’s been a joy to return to our classrooms and campus.

Even as we do so now, the question many faculty, staff, and academic leaders asked as early as last year, and in anticipation of our return to in-person teaching, was: What have we learned from our teaching and learning experiences during this period and, indeed, from the last decade of digital investments that might inform how we educate our students going forward? Are there new opportunities to advance learning and new approaches to making it more accessible, rather than relegating the experiences of the last two years entirely to the rearview mirror? Are there new things that we want to embrace without being forced to do so? These were the key questions that the task force tackled.

Vice Provost Bharat Anand.
“A common priority across all our working group discussions was how to continue to meaningfully expand diversity and access,” said Bharat Anand, vice provost for advances in learning. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

GAZETTE: We’ve discussed in this space before just how innovative faculty members, staffers, and students alike were during the pandemic, finding new and creative ways to continue to support Harvard’s commitment to teaching and learning, even when they were unable to do so on campus. With two years now behind us, in what ways did this period impact pedagogy?

BRIDGET LONG: While the teaching and learning experience was challenging, some pretty remarkable things also happened that otherwise would not have happened so quickly. Faculty were forced to think differently, to rethink certain assumptions about how we teach, and to be deliberate in creating connection with students. Remote teaching provided an opportunity to increase educational access for learners who might otherwise never come to our campus. In so many ways, a great deal of creative energy went into re-envisioning teaching and learning.

GAZETTE: What are some examples?

ANAND: We saw new possibilities arise when our classrooms were no longer bound by constraints on time and location. Faculty embraced simple features of digital technology like chat and breakout rooms that enabled simultaneous multiperson conversation and more interactive learning. Guest experts and speakers could join from anywhere. Virtual tours allowed students to visit locations they otherwise could not have. New video and audio asynchronous materials enabled the flipping of classrooms, which allowed for richer and deeper synchronous class discussion. Approaches to assessments were in certain cases productively rethought. Alumni were drawn into some of our classrooms to teach and learn. Programs were restructured to create more time for reflection between classes. And being “one click away” increased educational opportunity for learners around the world, and diversity in our virtual classrooms.

The key question going forward is how to take advantage of some of these beneficial features now that we’ve gone back to classroom teaching — and some of this is already starting to happen. How do we preserve and sustain a culture of innovation in teaching? And how do we also take advantage of the prior decade’s investments in asynchronous digital learning when we had figured out ways to create online experiences that were immersive and relational and more than just a “Zoom university.”

GAZETTE: Bridget, you led various efforts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that leaned into some of these opportunities. What were some of the most important lessons from your vantage point?

LONG: Talent resides everywhere. When the HGSE one-year master’s program was forced to go fully online during the pandemic, we decided to open a new round of admissions, and the response was incredible. Within five weeks we received 1.5 times the applications we would in a typical year — drawing a more diverse set of learners into our classrooms who might otherwise have never come to Harvard. We increased access for them, and they enriched our classroom conversations with new perspectives and experiences grounded in communities around the world.

GAZETTE: Tell us about the major recommendations emerging from the work of the task force.

MIKE SMITH: The task force was charged with taking some of these learnings from the pandemic, along with perspectives that were already in place during the pre-COVID era, to think about a couple of main ideas. One, how can Harvard enrich and enhance the in-person learning experiences for those who reside on our physical campus, and two, how can we enrich and expand the online experiences for learners who are located in different parts of the world and are unable or unlikely to physically come to the Harvard campus?

A range of opportunities present themselves, some of which involve deepening and amplifying existing practices, processes, and programs.

In the report, the task force also proposes three new strategic directions for Harvard’s Schools and for the University more broadly: reimagining student learning through blended experiences that combine the best of in-person with the best of digital; creating a new, coherent Harvard strategy for short-form digital content and learning experiences; and — this is more exploratory — building out a new virtual Harvard campus that reflects in its own unique way the richness of the Cambridge/Boston-based campus experience.

Terry Long.
“We encourage, and foresee, a shift in mindset beyond the current alternatives of entirely in-person or entirely online offerings to incorporate a range of experiences across all of Harvard’s offerings,” said Bridget Long, dean of the Graduate School of Education. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

GAZETTE: Bridget, you led the working group of the task force that focused on blended experiences. What can you tell us about the takeaways from this group?

LONG: We have seen how digital technologies can enhance what we do in our classrooms and how they can expand opportunities for students everywhere. We encourage, and foresee, a shift in mindset beyond the current alternatives of entirely in-person or entirely online offerings to incorporate a range of experiences across all of Harvard’s offerings, including degree and non-degree programs.

Learning does not have to be confined in a traditional residential classroom. We’ve seen the value of community and meaningful connections. We witnessed the power of giving students multiple ways to connect with their instructors and peers and to contribute their ideas — whether that be verbally or in written form, synchronous and asynchronous, and in a large group or smaller breakouts made possible with the touch of a keyboard. Interventions typically used for accessibility accommodations, like the use of captions and classroom recording transcripts, supported the advancement of all students’ learning. Overall, we saw a heightened commitment to meeting students where they are and incorporating technologies that make learning more flexible.

GAZETTE: Bharat, you led the working group that identified opportunities around short-form digital learning experiences. What were some of the specifics to come out of this group?

ANAND: Historically, the unit of analysis for almost every Harvard program or offering, whether a residential degree program or online certificate offering, has been a roughly 12-week-long “course.” But that’s just an artifact of the semester structure. When we consider opportunities in digital learning, we can think more flexibly about the length of a learning experience and not just limit ourselves to the residential format of a course. So much of what we might call “short-form content” is regularly created at Harvard, and it represents an exciting opportunity to build out a repertoire of flexible learning experiences. They will be a complement to our traditional courses and expand the scope and impact of the learning Harvard enables for individuals everywhere.

But more than that, shorter-form digital learning experiences can also meaningfully enhance residential learning. Forced by the pandemic, many of our faculty created mini-lecture recordings, short lessons with digital content, podcasts, and other learning formats for students, which, in turn, opened up time in live sessions for more substantive discussion. Putting this together, we foresee the need — and a big opportunity — for a technology and support infrastructure that allows faculty to more easily create such impactful, short-form learning experiences that can complement residential learning and expand digital learning, as and when they choose.

GAZETTE: And Mike, you led the working group on creating impactful experiences for students from around the globe in a way that’s quite different from the efforts that Harvard and other universities have been engaged in for the last decade, some of which you participated in and led.

SMITH: That’s right. For much of the past decade, since Harvard and other universities got into the online learning space, we primarily focused on the content of online courses. Which courses did we want to create? How could we bring the diverse subject matter taught by our experts to the world?

But one of the most powerful lessons of the pandemic was the importance of community and the relationships that bind us together. It is community that enriches our courses and ultimately makes memorable our content. This led the task force to imagine what might be possible if we could use technology to create a virtual Harvard campus experience. What would attract people to this virtual space? What elements of our Cambridge/Boston-based campus experience would we want replicated in this new virtual space, and what new experiences could we build virtually that we cannot easily do with our physical campus? This represents a fundamental shift in emphasis from content, courses, and catalogs alone, to include connections, community, and relationships that enhance these experiences.

GAZETTE: Could you explain more about how these three strategic directions are meant to work, in concert?

ANAND: Indeed, they are closely intertwined in many ways. Content, classrooms, and campus all reinforce each other for impact — for example, blended experiences can be created by leveraging short-form digital content, which in turn can also anchor a virtual campus. A common priority across all our working group discussions was how to continue to meaningfully expand diversity and access. And beyond specific examples of new opportunities in each category, we also considered common design principles that we should aspire to follow, regardless of the particular strategic recommendation. These principles are informed both by Harvard’s centuries-long experience in residential teaching and by the experience of remote teaching and learning in the last decade.

GAZETTE: What are some of the design principles?

SMITH: To begin with, Harvard will continue to seek to offer teaching and learning experiences that are “uniquely Harvard.” There is real history here with regard to the quality of the education we provide, and we of course don’t want to forget that. We should also aim to creatively incorporate technology into our teaching and learning activities when it helps us to meet students where they are — whether in Cambridge, Boston, or elsewhere.

LONG: Diversity, equity, and inclusion must also be our guiding tenets in the work we do. Although our various learner experiences won’t be identical, we should always seek to deliver excellent outcomes. What we have seen the past two years is that we have many more tools to accomplish this goal than ever before. And we must recognize that innovations will need to occur at multiple levels: by individual faculty and through support at the program, School, and University levels — through leveraging shared insights, dedicating resources, and making investments across Harvard. These are just a few of the principles.

GAZETTE: The work to implement the task force’s recommendations is already in motion. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives that are already taking place?

LONG: Many deans, including myself, are examining how to lean into the teaching and learning innovations that were especially beneficial the last two years, and we are giving serious thought to how to increase opportunity and access. We are taking the lessons learned to digitally transform our Schools and expand our aspirations.

ANAND: We’re currently exploring an initiative that would expand the work of the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, thanks to a generous gift from Rita Hauser in honor of her late husband, Gus. This initiative would support pedagogical innovations by faculty for in-person, blended, and online experiences on a University-wide level. In addition, there is also exploratory work underway on an exciting new learning experience platform for the University that VPAL, Harvard Business School, Harvard University Information Technology, and other partners are collaborating on.

Michael D. Smith.
“One of the most powerful lessons of the pandemic was the importance of community and the relationships that bind us together,” said Mike Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

GAZETTE: What other considerations were discussed by the task force?

LONG: Although we learned to manage the external factors caused by COVID-19 and even as innovations across the University were happening, the inequities in access to education for our students also quickly became apparent. While some issues were resolved as students returned to campus, now is the time for us to consider how students everywhere access our educational resources and infrastructure. We have an opportunity to double down on being intentional in our thinking about the ways in which we level the playing field to ensure equitable access for all students.

SMITH: And access isn’t only restricted to financial or technological access. It includes support, participation, and inclusive relationships, as we outline in the report.

GAZETTE: What are some next steps we can take as soon as today versus others that may require additional resources?

SMITH: The recommendations section of the report touches on immediate, one- to three-year, and longer-term next steps for the University. Some innovations can be more seamlessly incorporated or transferred and others require some rethinking in terms of physical infrastructure.

Tomorrow, an instructor could decide to prioritize an activity that allowed students to experience a meaningful interaction — with them or their peers. But upgrading technology in residential classrooms requires more time and investment, not to mention collaborative work across Schools, departments, and relevant units.

GAZETTE: Anything else you’d like to add?

ANAND: One of the things that we repeatedly came back to in the task force discussions is what makes Harvard special — what is it about the “Harvard experience” that we ought to aspire to preserve in any educational experience, whether this involves 30 learners engaged in in-person classroom discussions, 3,000 learners in an online course, or 30 million learners in a virtual campus community.

Harvard has, historically and for generations, signified inspiring ideas, personal transformation, a network of relationships, and a commitment to the truth. These attributes, and the principles that Bridget and Mike delineated, ought to continue to anchor any Harvard offering going forward, whether residential or virtual, whether long-form or short-form.

LONG: I’m excited about the opportunities in front of us to expand upon what it means to be a part of such an experience. The task force discussions have shown that there is a strong desire within all of Harvard’s Schools to build upon our already meaningful and impactful educational experience for our students, and to improve the core residential educational experience itself in lasting ways.

SMITH: We owe it to our learners everywhere to do whatever we can to deliver an experience they will value and appreciate. After all, this is why we do what we do.