One American university just offered a suggestion that its undergraduate experience may be online this fall.
Harvard College professor and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda Claybaugh emailed her faculty to share her thinking and plans for the rest of 2020. It’s a fascinating short document, and one I’d like to discuss here.
The dean leads with a crucial point: “it seems likely that, under any scenario, most of our instruction will be online.”
This is different from most other recent pronouncements from campus leaders. Claybaugh isn’t calling for an entirely online term – note that “most.” She’s certainly not anticipating a wholly or mostly in-person experience. And she isn’t calling for either a balanced blend of online and in-person, nor a HyFlex experience.
What is the dean’s rationale?
because of the impediments our international students will face returning to campus, because of the risks our immunocompromised students and faculty will face returning to the classroom, and because of the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public health authorities.
All of which makes a great deal of sense. International students: that’s about 1/5th of the student body. Immunocompromised members of the community: ditto. Having classes in person without spreading COVID: the same.
How will Harvard accomplish this? Claybaugh outlines three support strategies.
First, changing up the instructor/student ratio: “Sections will be capped at twelve students, and graduate students will be trained to provide additional support for online teaching.”
Second, expanded faculty development:
All faculty are expected to attend trainings this summer… Consisting of four one-hour live sessions, along with materials to review in advance, these trainings will offer concrete guidance on adapting courses to remote teaching. Faculty will finish them with a redesigned syllabus and Canvas site.
Note that attendance at these trainings isn’t optional, but “expected.”
Third, “[p]roviding support for course redesign…” Instructors “can consult with staff at the Bok Center, and they can also hire graduate students to work on this over the summer.”
There is also a technological note:
We will continue to use Canvas, Zoom, and Panopto, but we recognize that certain courses (language courses, lab courses, course that rely heavily on the blackboard) might have additional needs. We’ll be working with chairs to determine what other technologies we should invest in.
That’s a curiously limited set of just three technologies. Apparently supporting the huge range of other tools is the province of individual departments. I note the emphasis on blackboard (whiteboard?) needs.
Why does all of this matter? Harvard is, after all, just one out of 4400 or so American higher education institutions. It is literally extraordinary due to its superlative reputation, wealth, and network.
Yet much of American higher ed, and a great deal of the discourse around it, pays inordinate attention to Harvard. That university’s every curricular twitch, its program decisions, statements from its faculty are magnetic to academia. So, first off, statements like Claybaugh’s are likely to be more influential than those from a given state university.
Second, the dean’s points may actually be applicable to other institutions. Think of this line again, about why Harvard might be mostly online: “the difficulty of holding in-person classes while still conforming to guidance from public health authorities.” If Harvard finds this challenging, with about $5.5 billion in income and its $40 billion endowment, what does that say about the remaining 99.9+% of American higher education?
I don’t want to freight this one email with too much meaning. It is, after all, just one message. WBUR points out (without linking, alas) that a parallel communication with a different call is in play:
Another email circulating among some faculty says should the college allow undergraduates back to campus, the current plan would have them take their classes over Zoom from their dorm rooms since there are not enough larger classrooms to provide sufficient social distancing..
That’s closer to what I’ve heard from other campuses. Claybaugh’s email offers a different take. I wonder how many colleges and universities will be inspired or nudged towards holding a mostly or entirely online fall term because of it. Perhaps this is the starting gun for a race.