Every course is different, as is every instructor, and the challenges of developing successful remote courses are highly multidimensional. Therefore there is no single, compact set of recommendations that will apply across Science and SEAS. Our goal is not to provide hard-and-fast rules, but rather to help prompt thoughtful prioritization of efforts. What follows is an inclusive collection of recommendations, some of which, we hope, can be successfully applied to your specific courses. Although these considerations are written primarily from the perspective of undergraduate courses, many are equally applicable to planning remote teaching of graduate courses.
General suggestions for remote learning
Who can offer advice & support for remote teaching?
- Participate in summer workshops to build skills in pedagogical and technical areas. Faculty should sign up for workshops here. Encourage your TFs to do the same; workshops for TFs will be held later in the summer.
- Ask colleagues about what worked particularly well, and also what could be improved, from our experience in Spring 2020. Many concentrations have started to collect feedback from students and faculty about their experiences this semester.
Create faculty cohorts for peer advice and support. The conversion to remote teaching is complex, and two heads are likely to be better than one. We are all experts at providing peer-review and constructive feedback; the emphasis here can be on positive support and encouragement.
- Start over the summer with course planning, design, video recording, other content creation.
- During the semester, occasionally sit in on / visit the online courses of those in your cohort to give feedback
- Cohort organization could build on existing faculty mentoring relationships
- Coordinate within departments, concentrations or subfields. Sometimes the most suitable expert is in a different department or area.
- Engage with experts from the Bok center and other groups (academic technology, colleagues who have taught online with DCE, other instructional staff). You can find contact information through the links included in the section below on other resources, and/or based on recommendations from colleagues.
How can I help all of my students thrive in remote learning?
- Keep in mind that your students are situated in very different environments, and they come from widely varying backgrounds. During Spring 2020, many students had challenges with technology at home, difficulties finding quiet study space, and family expectations that made it hard to focus on schoolwork.
- The vast inequalities between different students are mitigated to a large extent when students are on campus and all have similar living situations. Conversely, inequality is exacerbated when students are at home. Faculty should consider offering additional flexibility, e.g. with assignment deadlines, to acknowledge that all students will not have equal abilities to complete coursework on a prescribed schedule. In this context, treating students equally may not be the same as treating students equitably.
What else should we consider in preparing for remote teaching?
Focus your time and effort on areas where Harvard faculty can add unique value. Use existing textbook readings and/or free online videos to teach “generic” topics (see Appendix C of the full report for some online resources). The internet has excellent pedagogical content, but its topic coverage is limited. If content is not available for the learning goals of your course, consider the following approaches:
- When possible, incorporate small-group or one-on-one facetime with faculty, engaging in high-level skills and course content. This will help students to feel they are still participating in a “Harvard experience,” even if some of the course content is drawn from other sources.
- Spend time with students on higher-level skills involving discipline-specific expertise. For example: help students learn how to search the primary literature, and learn the state of the field, particularly on topics where pre-made pedagogical content is unavailable.
- Identify technical needs early. If possible, develop new technical tools and test them over the summer, rather than just-in-time during the semester.
- Understand and acknowledge to students that every style of pedagogy has its limitations. For instance, Zoom lectures can seem more fatiguing than the same in-person lecture. Try to keep in mind the totality of challenges students will have in a semester of remote coursework.
- Remote learning gives us an opportunity to invite guest speakers from other institutions, even from overseas. Do you have collaborators who teach related classes? Consider teaming up for joint lectures, discussions or projects.
- Think through the mechanics of high-value assessments, such as exams, ahead of time. Will you use proctors? What steps will you take to assure the security of exams (both in real-time and across offerings)? If your course must have timed, closed-book exams, consult with the OUE for updated guidance and advice on proctoring exams online.
- As an alternative to lengthy closed-book exams, consider asking short questions that students have to answer within a very short period of time (perhaps even “live” with an instructor or TF on Zoom). These questions could draw on course-specific content that would be difficult for students to find online.
What other resources can help with remote teaching?
- The Bok Center provides actionable suggestions on the many pedagogical elements of teaching remotely https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/teaching-remotely
- The OUE provides resources to faculty, including guidelines, training and a funding opportunity for assignment redesign https://oue.fas.harvard.edu/resources-faculty
- The Academic Technologies Group (ATG) provides a list of supported tools and platforms available for teaching remotely https://atg.fas.harvard.edu/technologies
- The DCE’s Instructional Technologies Group (ITG) has instructions on platforms like Canvas, the Canvas Gradebook, and Proctorio https://itg.extension.harvard.edu
- The Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning provides guidelines and suggestions for converting a course to remote teaching https://teachremotely.harvard.edu/
- The Learning Incubator in SEAS is a general resource for innovations in teaching https://linc.seas.harvard.edu
- HUIT provides guidelines on Zoom HUIT’s guide to Zoom for teaching
Teaching labs and other hands-on activities
How can I identify the main learning goals of my lab course?
- Review the guidance and resources compiled by the Bok center: https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/remote-labs
Start by explicitly identifying key learning goals for the lab experiments within the broader learning goals of your course. Keep an eye on the big pedagogical picture, and match your activities to those learning goals, which could include:
Physical manipulation of lab apparatus, samples, etc. Some of these learning goals could be simulated remotely, for instance:
- 3D digital models of specimens which can be manipulated virtually (e.g. paleontological specimens in OEB 126)
- CAD models or electronic circuit models in engineering/design courses (e.g. online circuit simulators in Physics 123)
- Troubleshooting experimental problems: when an experiment isn’t working, what do you do? Some online simulations allow students to make “mistakes” and try to recover from those mistakes.
- Data collection and analysis. Bring your students through the “pipeline” from primary data collection to production of figures for publication.
- Experimental design, including “follow-up” experiments. Try to get students to experience the feedback loop between hypothesis-generation, modeling, and data collection that is so characteristic of research.
- Scientific writing & presentation, including research proposals. Students can peer-review each other’s work, which can increase engagement in a remote context.
- Computation and simulation. Such labs could be simulations of physical experiments, but could also be original computational/theoretical research projects in their own right. The latter, with the accompanying sense of discovery, might strongly engage student attention.
- Physical manipulation of lab apparatus, samples, etc. Some of these learning goals could be simulated remotely, for instance:
Can students use lab kits or other activities at home?
“At home” lab experiments may be possible using common household items or by distributing kits.
- Before implementing, make sure you are aware of and address any potential saftey and liability issues. Contact your department's representative at EH&S for more information. They will review the materials and instructions for your lab kits.
- Any protocols must be relatively simple and non-hazardous.
- “Home-grown” labs, using materials from home or local or online stores are possible. However, depending on the local situation, asking students to venture out of their homes could have negative public health dimensions.
- Lab kits could be acquired commercially or assembled and shipped from campus.
- “Field trips,” either alone or with small student groups, could replicate on-campus experiences, but could have negative public health consequences.
How can remote labs make use of on-campus resources?
Remote labs that use on-campus experiments or equipment may be possible, but will require resources and instructor staffing.
- Consider these options if large, hazardous, or expensive instrumentation is essential for your course’s learning goals.
- Such experiments require staff to be present on campus. Protocols that are compatible with public health mandates may be required.
- Videos of labs (including mistakes) can be recorded. Students can analyze both the data collected and the success of the experiment as a whole, participating in a realistic experimental feedback loop.
- Students can propose experiments that TFs execute on campus. Students can then analyze the data. Appendix D of the full report outlines the experimental design activities in MCB 63 as an example.
- Real-time remote control of on-campus equipment may be possible, but consider the costs and benefits. For instance, if the remote “interface” between the student and the equipment is slow or burdensome, will the learning be commensurate with the time invested? Will it feel/be too busy-work?
Can we use simulated or computational lab “experiments”?
- Simulations of specific protocols or experimental systems can be acquired commercially or custom-made, given sufficient technical support and lead-time.
- Students can analyze simulated data (including simulated errors) or real experimental data already in-hand.
- Computation/simulation projects can constitute fully original research, which can help with student engagement.
Can I focus instead on other lab-related learning goals?
Yes! There are many aspects of research that can be addressed without in-person labs, such as:
- Writing & presentation, either of existing data or research proposal
- Literature review, perhaps with statistical meta-analysis
Can students who are on campus come to the teaching labs?
Students on campus may be able to come to lab, although stringent distancing, air-handling, and mask-wearing protocols must be observed.
Plan on roughly 200 sq.ft. per person in a lab room, and no more than 25% of the usual occupancy.
Contact your department/area chair for approval of any plans to have students in on-campus departmental teaching labs. (For labs in the Science Center, contact Logan McCarty, email@example.com. For SEAS teaching labs, contact Patrick Ulrich, firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Building community among your students
What types of pedagogy can help to build community?
Different styles of instruction can be mixed and combined to suit your courses’ learning goals. Some approaches that will help build community include:
- Recorded videos (short) with interspersed quizzes/polls or other activities that promote engagement. A recent article describes different video formats and their pros and cons for student satisfaction and learning: https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.18-08-0171.
- Threaded external content with interspersed quizzes and polls. LabXChange (https://www.labxchange.org) is a growing platform for assembling these content threads, and was central to the online implementation of MCB 64. Merlot (https://merlot.org) is another platform that aggregates digital teaching resources.
- Synchronous instruction with activities that engage students: breakout rooms to solve problems in small groups, mid-lecture polls, demonstrations, derivations on virtual whiteboards, student presentations (central in Chem 20). Student presentation content can include project findings, peer reviews, grant proposals, etc. The collaborative whiteboard platform https://limnu.com is one option.
- Small-group office hours, help room, discussion sections. Tutorial-style classes represent one model of such interactions. Several “Virtual office” environments are available for meetings (Sococo, Remo, Zoom).
Small, synchronous “Freshman-seminar” style courses can be ideal for student engagement and building community. These can take the form of tutorial courses for advanced concentrators - a number of departments already offer such tutorials, e.g.:
- HEB sophomore tutorials, for credit. Students meet weekly; the goal is to learn how to read and understand scientific papers, and get introduced to big ideas in the field. Required of concentrators.
- MCB/CPB tutorials, non-credit. Upon joining the concentration, students are paired with a Tutor (MCB faculty or other researchers (e.g. HMS, HSPH, fellows)) for the duration of their time in the concentration. They meet one-on-one or in small groups every 2-3 weeks during the academic year. See pamphlet for more details.
- Neuroscience tutorials are year-long half courses, often taught by advanced graduate students, postdocs, or Medical area faculty. They meet weekly, are limited to 12 students, and count as an advanced course.
- Physics has weekly research seminars (Physics 95) on Wednesday evenings aimed at junior/senior undergraduates. Each week one or two faculty would give short talks highlighting some of their research, and then stay to socialize with students afterwards.
What types of assignments will foster collaboration & community?
Some types of assessments naturally foster community and collaboration, such as:
- Group projects
- Break-out discussions
- Peer feedback
- Consider community participation as an explicit part of students’ grade, as reflected in your syllabus.
- Online tools can foster collaboration, e.g. Google Colab makes it easy for students to do pair programming and for TFs to help debug students’ code.
What other strategies can help to build community?
- Establish a culture of engagement, collaboration and discussion early in the semester, and provide opportunities for the students to get to know each other. One example of this sort of activity is a reciprocal interview on learning and teaching goals: https://ctlt.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/lifts/Lift36RecriprocalInterview.pdf
Incorporate low-stakes requirements for students to engage. For example:
- Require (or provide extra credit for) attending an office hour early in the semester, so students know they can (and should) come to office hours even if they don’t have pressing questions.
- Use a tool like Padlet (https://padlet.com/) for students to share ideas, or responses to prompts such as “most confusing concept in today’s lecture”, “favorite concept from the lecture”, etc.
- Before implementing new tools, consider how many tools students will need to master across courses. When possible, prioritize broadly used tools, and/or coordinate with other courses.
- Host “student choice” class sessions. Students could, through asynchronous discussion ahead of time, decide what content will be presented/discussed.
- Make sure to include asynchronous approaches in your course workflow, to promote inclusion in our diverse student population, e.g. Zoom chat channel, discussion boards (Canvas, Piazza, YellowDig), Wiki pages.
- Set clear expectations with TFs/course staff that community is a priority, and that part of their responsibilities include working to foster it.
- Keep track of student participation and engagement, to ensure that every student interacts with an instructor or TF at least once each week. Reach out to any students who seem disengaged. Contact the appropriate resident dean with any persistent concerns.
- Participate in, and better yet, organize opportunities for students to interact with faculty outside of the classroom. Collaborate with colleagues to create activities that mimic Faculty Dinners, Classroom-to-Table, or simple pre- or post-lecture chitchat. See specific examples listed on the page aimed at departments/areas and concentrations.
Mentoring undergraduate research
Can undergraduates participate in research on campus?
We expect so. The college is exploring some on-campus options that you should keep in mind. At the moment these are all possibilities, not certainties:
- Undergrads who live nearby (or who live in the dorms) may be able to conduct research on campus.
- Other students could take a “field trip to Cambridge” to do research, spending perhaps a month or two on campus or living nearby.
- Undergraduates participating in experimental research may be part of a subset of students invited to campus in the fall.
What kinds of research projects can be done remotely?
Consider remote options for undergraduate research projects:
- Computation, simulation, data analysis, meta-analysis, MTurk, survey studies, CAD & experiment design
- “Alternatives to research”: engage one or more students in a deep literature review project, or involve them in developing a research proposal (preparing figures, literature review, generating preliminary data remotely).
- Some of the ideas presented in the section above on teaching labs can also be applied to developing remote undergraduate research projects.
Partner with others (e.g. with collaborators or by creating mentoring groups) to help mentor undergrads on remote projects that are more distant extensions of your research projects. Examples of ways in which such partnerships could help:
- Mentoring computational projects in labs that don’t usually focus on computation
- Guiding a student on a serious literature search and writing a substantial review article
- Helping a student with a meta-analysis of published data
How can I best mentor undergraduates who are working remotely?
It will be challenging but essential to provide good mentoring to undergraduates who are conducting research remotely.
- Student projects may feel less connected with high-priority research, so implement mechanisms early on to stay connected, like weekly subgroup check-in meetings on Zoom.
Set clear expectations for both students and mentors. In many hands-on research projects, undergraduates will spend 10+ hours/week with their mentor/direct supervisor. Expectations should be analogous in a remote setting. This could include frequent check-ins, both synchronous and asynchronous, such as:
- written feedback on research outputs
- attendance, presentations, and discussions at group and subgroup meetings
- formal or informal journal clubs
- formal or informal “workshops” for a small group of undergraduates learning similar remote tasks.