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Harvard Faculty Prepare for the Possibility of Online Classes in the Fall

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After Harvard administrators announced Monday that the fall semester may take place online, faculty have begun preparing in earnest for the possibility of continued remote teaching.

This spring, instructors had less than two weeks from the day the University announced all classes would move online to the first day of online classes to transition their courses to a virtual format. If classes continue remotely in the fall, several department chairs said the summer would give them time to develop a more robust online educational model — but added they may also have to cancel or postpone certain classes centered on in-person experiences.

While many faculty said earlier this semester that they felt prepared to deliver classes online, they also encountered unforeseen difficulties after the transition happened. Faced with the task of remotely proctoring students in different time zones, many shifted to open-note examinations, placing faith in the College’s Honor Code to prevent cheating.

But now — after Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay told faculty in a Monday email to immediately begin planning for a possible online fall — professors must figure out how to deliver an excellent and equitable learning experience for all students amid the pandemic. Gay previously said that doing so would require “rigorous and creative” solutions.

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So far, around 300 faculty have sought out resources from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning — the FAS’s teaching support center — to help transition to online instruction, according to the center’s faculty director, Robert A. Lue.

To meet the demand, the Bok Center offered faculty a variety of consultations, workshops, self-paced modules on online learning, as well as an option to request that Bok Center staff observe their courses and provide feedback.

Lue said the Bok Center is preparing for multiple different scenarios next fall and may work with several academic departments, as well as instructors of large courses, to help them plan over the summer.

“One thing that’s crucial is that the Harvard curriculum will be excellent. Everyone is committed to that,” he said. “We’re going to be working super hard all summer long.”

Comparative Literature chair David N. Damrosch said he and nearly all of his colleagues in the department have used Bok Center offerings to transition their courses online. He plans to encourage faculty in his department to go back to the center over the summer to develop their courses.

“If in the fall, we’re doing a full Zoom semester, that will take some extra thought, though I think we’re three quarters of the way there now,” Damrosch said.

Economics department chair Jeremy C. Stein said the transition has exceeded his expectations for what could be achieved online.

“When the news first came out, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t even see why we would continue the class,’” he said.

Stein added that getting to know his students in person in the first half of the semester made the process of moving online easier.

“It is obviously a much more challenging proposition to do a semester from start to finish online,” he said.

Other departments, however, have run into conundrums in attempting to conduct laboratory courses online.

Physics chair Subir Sachdev said his department will not be able to offer components of some of its classes — or even entire courses — if students are not able to return to campus this fall.

Sachdev said he is already considering what to do about fall courses that would typically be taught exclusively through labs, such as Physics 191: “Advanced Laboratory” and Physics 123: “Laboratory Electronics.”

“If the fall is entirely remote, then we may have to completely redesign that course or offer something else in the hope that the students would take that course when they eventually come back,” Sachdev said. “There’s no completely online substitute for a complete lab course like Physics 191.”

Director of Science Education Logan S. McCarty ’96, who has been helping faculty across the Sciences division transition their courses online, said some Chemistry courses that work with toxic materials — such as Chemistry 145: “Experimental Inorganic Chemistry” — would likewise have to be postponed.

One possible solution may be to offer students three credits for taking the lecture portion of a four-credit course in the fall, then one credit for the lab component once campus reopens, McCarty said.

McCarty said the summer will offer time to transform lecture-style courses from a hastily-planned Zoom course to a “high-quality Harvard X-type course,” referring to Harvard’s online education platform. He said such courses could include filmed science demonstrations, quizzes, and guest speakers.

“We could create a highly produced, polished, really good experience, where the lecture part of the class would be far superior than what we’ve been able to throw together on Zoom,” McCarty said.

Physics professor Amir Yacoby, who helps teach the laboratory component of Physics 15b: “Introductory Electromagnetism and Statistical Physics,” wrote in an email that the lab staff was able to meet most of its learning goals this semester despite the remote format. The staff recorded videos of themselves conducting experiments before campus closed, and students remotely analyzed the video data, wrote papers, and participated in discussions.

“This was not a typical semester. However, we have maintained active student engagement, enthusiasm, and learning despite the remote modality,” Yacoby wrote.

The lab staff are discussing ways students may be able to collect data at home in the fall, Yacoby said in an interview. He added that his course already focuses on creating simple models that allow students to puzzle through phenomenon on their own.

“Overall, I believe that we can replicate our activities and maintain 95 percent of our goals remotely,” he said.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at james.bikales@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at kevin.chen@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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