Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana said in a Tuesday interview that he sees the transition to online learning as an opportunity for students and faculty to innovate in pedagogy and practice adaptability.
After Harvard mandated that students leave campus and finish their semester remotely to prevent the spread of coronavirus, faculty said they were concerned about logistical issues and learning quality in online classes.
Khurana said, however, that faculty members had, overall, reported increased levels of participation among their students by the third week of online classes.
He added that Zoom, a teleconference platform used for most classes, offers a number of advantageous features that promote engagement in the virtual classroom, including an in-meeting chat and “breakout” rooms.
“The chat side allows faculty to see questions that are emerging among students that might not otherwise get vocalized during the class and allows the faculty to understand the areas that might need clarification,” he said.
He added that the breakout rooms, which allow an instructor to send smaller groups of students into their own digital “rooms,” permit immediate and intimate discussion, which might have otherwise been difficult to organize in some in-person classes.
Khurana said he has been especially proud of the “learning orientation” of faculty, staff, and students as they have adapted to using Zoom.
“It is also teaching us that we can adapt, that we're capable of learning new things, that our fears, often, about doing something new are not always well-founded,” he said.
He also said students have embodied the College’s mission of fostering resilience throughout the move to online learning. He noted that resilience is a character trait the admissions office seeks in applicants.
“Leadership, ultimately, is the ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he explained. “It's the willingness to adapt and change to circumstance, but be steady in your values.”
Khurana also said he has admired the innovative ways students have forged digital connections with their now-distant peers, adding that his staff has also recently begun using the professional messaging service Slack.
“I'm seeing the reuse of things like Discord, and all sorts of other areas that I felt were made for video game chatting, are suddenly being used for creating a kind of hang-out community,” he said.
While Khurana said he believes it is “unfortunate” that the spread of coronavirus necessitated the College’s online transition, he also said he values the chance to reflect on new directions in pedagogy, as well as to celebrate the buoyancy of Harvard affiliates.
“If you would have told people a few weeks ago that we're going to run an entire experiment in which we're all going to change the way we learn and the way we work, my sense is that this is not an experiment most people would have been willing to run,” he said.
“But what it makes us realize is that on the other side of this is resilience and adaptability,” he added.