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Graduate School of Education Uses Online Learning As Teachable Moment, College Should Follow

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Learning during the pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. But the administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has still been taking notes during these trying times, meticulously studying its own pandemic-era operations over the past several semesters. Now, as the distance dwindles and normalcy feels within reach, HGSE — like any great student — is set to take what they have learned and apply it.

In a recent announcement of its tentative plans for fall 2021, HGSE shared that it will be working to revitalize its campus with a return to in-person learning next semester. But interestingly, virtual offerings will not disappear from the course catalog entirely — a decision informed, in part, by the unique levels of access that online learning has offered to many of HGSE’s newest students.

Most remarkably, HGSE admitted an entire cohort of students last summer who ordinarily work full-time and thus would not have been able to travel to campus during a normal year marked by in-person instruction. Now, thanks to the HGSE’s continued virtual offerings, these mid-career students will be able to continue their fully remote studies next year. This development serves as an inspiring testament to the power of recognizing the positive elements of pandemic learning; and of ensuring that, even as we return to “normalcy,” these most fruitful new developments are cemented and preserved.

As we celebrate HGSE’s thoughtful preparation, it is vital to recognize that its position is not at all unique: The widespread school shut-down in March forced almost every educational institution across the country to navigate an unfamiliar online world, engage with new modes of inquiry, and adapt their pedagogical models accordingly. Now, as those emergency conditions recede, life reverts to normal, and droves of students return to lecture halls, all educators and administrators find themselves in a remarkably teachable moment — including those at the College.

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Against this backdrop, we hope that Harvard College will look to the Harvard School of Graduate Education as an example of the planning for reopening our schools done right.

At the College, the options for continued online engagement are particularly bountiful outside of the classroom sphere. Worthwhile opportunities for personal development — such as career-focused coffee chats — should certainly remain available online. This past year, when these pursuits were made virtual, their increased ease of access enabled both students and mentors to take greater advantage of them and reap their most valuable benefits.

In-person office hours, too, have always been difficult to schedule and attend: The time we had to spend commuting to our professor’s office made dropping in for a quick question a tricky cost-benefit analysis. During the pandemic, however, the increased accessibility and availability made possible by Zoom has been a welcome change — one which we hope to see remain even as public health concerns begin to dissipate.

Within the classroom itself, the potential of benefiting from continued online instruction is less clear. On the one hand, recording more lectures while making synchronous lecture attendance optional could help to enhance some courses, especially those which are particularly large or have students with scheduling conflicts — some courses were doing this even before the pandemic. But still, context will matter. The logistical setup of each class, for one, will help determine whether continued online aspects will be helpful. Labs for example, must be in person — but lectures in Science Center Hall B? Perhaps not.

We also remain wary of “hybrid” course models with half of a course’s students on Zoom and half within the physical classroom space, especially for classes that are not lecture-based. For Zoom-ing as well as room-ing students, such models can feel disconnected, even fractured. And for the professors and technology support staff, managing these courses can be quite burdensome.

One thing, however, is clear: Harvard should not simply “move on” from the pandemic. Instead, we urge the College to interrogate what has worked well over the past year and to augment campus life with these new conventions moving forward. We hope that the College champions the best of the pandemic, while doing away with the worst — and, most profoundly, that it uses these trying times as a learning opportunity.

In these undertakings, the Harvard Graduate School of Education has begun to lead the way. Now all the College has to do is to follow.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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