November/December 2020Vol. XXXIII No. 2
Teach Talk

Teaching Under Covid: Losses Outweigh Gains

David Geltner Alan Jasanoff Caroline Jones

Covid has presented all walks of life with unique and unprecedented challenges. But there can be some silver linings. Now near the conclusion of our fall semester after a spring of dizzying turnarounds, what can we say, “big picture,” about how remote online teaching is going at MIT?

Here’s a view assembled from experiences the three of us have had. Importantly, we don’t claim to be broadly representative, but perhaps our report from the trenches presents an informative sampling of diverse experiences with 100% remote online teaching and learning.

One of our subjects is a synchronously conducted graduate seminar with neither quantitative nor hands-on components,1while the others are traditional “MIT type” courses that have used disparate styles to convey basic, largely quantitative material using lectures and problem sets.2 These three subjects have been able to reach students prohibited from being on campus, whether by Covid or visa snafus – and they are in multiple time zones that span the planet. Because they lack laboratory or studio elements, these classes encompass the general types of subject material and styles of teaching that can probably best lend themselves to online remote learning. With that in mind, considering them points to some general strengths and limitations of the educational environment we now work within.

Some good news? . . .

One of us (Geltner) had some prior experience with online teaching that enabled him, by investing the better part of the summer, to convert his subject to an entirely “flipped classroom” approach, that is, material presented asynchronously in lecture videos and other media, with live classes only for engagement and interaction/discussion, review of the problem sets, and consolidation of the learning.3Some learning scientists consider this flipped teaching approach to be most effective for online remote learning where lecturing is involved.4 With support from those experts (e.g., coaching from MIT Open Learning), Geltner redeveloped and uploaded his entire 12-unit course electronically and has been using a wide range of the really very impressive tools and capabilities of the MITx platform.5 This format is going very well. Geltner is teaching as much (maybe even slightly more) material than he has traditionally been able to assign (now in pre-recorded lectures and various other modalities), and all the evidence so far suggests that among the 47 mostly graduate students (including some mid-career), learning and, importantly, retention, is at least as good, maybe even slightly better than with his traditional in-person teaching. And students seem to be generally pretty satisfied with the combination of stored lectures and online live engagement. The asynchronous delivery mixes up the type of learning experience (reading, videos, exercises, self-administered immediate-feedback quizzes, online discussion forums), breaks it up into bite-size chunks, and gives the students flexibility in management of their time.

Some bad news . . .

In Jones’s graduate Methods seminar, by contrast, it has been a struggle to compose the kind of community that was taken for granted in the usual intimate classroom (equipped with a blackboard for spontaneous insights, and a projector for pre-planned content presentations). Zoom-zombihood was a real threat after any given 50-minute timespan, whether the student was coming from 10 pm in Dubai or 5 am in California. So, Jones broke the seminar block into “solidarity cohorts” of five, each of which met for a half hour to frame their thoughts about difficult concepts, before the group of all 17 participants could join to share in discussion. (The professor, note, is “on point” for all of these slots.) This mechanism helped, but students needed many more visits to office hours than usual, to achieve the kind of confidence in their learning that usually begins to swell after mid-semester, as they approach their research topic for a final scholarly paper.

Jasanoff’s graduate core class faces related problems. Lectures in this course have used PowerPoint in the past, and the transition to Zoom has been friendly to this medium. Discussion during remote classes has been remarkably robust, abetted by smart and articulate students.

Below the surface, however, things are less well.

In normal times, successful lecturing involves taking the temperature of the room, probing the class as a whole with didactic questions and remedying quizzical looks with supplementary lessons. As with many challenging science classes, a major part of student success in Jasanoff’s course also has to do with multipolar interactions peripheral to the classroom itself. These include the impromptu Q&A entertained before and after lectures, the free-form exchanges of traditional office hours, and the intensive interplay that takes place among students themselves, often at late-night homework sessions. All of these crucial in-person ingredients are severely attenuated in the remote learning format, despite efforts to compensate using Zoom recitations and other meet-ups. The loss of traditional interactions thus makes it far more difficult to tailor educational content to diverse backgrounds, placing unnatural burdens on teachers and trainees alike.

The crucial problem: What’s missing . . .

And there’s more bad news. All three of us agree that the new formats are not nearly as much fun as good old in-person classroom teaching and on-campus interaction. We speak for ourselves, but we feel sure this is true for the students too. When we speak of “fun” here, we don’t mean frivolous or superficial fun. What we mean is intellectual fun – the shared adventure of a flash of insight, somewhere in the room, the “lightbulb moments,” the opportunities for students to jump up and add something to the blackboard, or for faculty suddenly to think of a new way of framing an explanation. Sure, there are some of these spontaneous events that burst into the Zoom chat – a lifesaving feature that builds community in this parallel online stream of comments, appreciation, questions, and added references. But these flashes are noticeably fewer than in typical in-person teaching, and harder to build on from the chat. How often does it happen, even after 30 years teaching, that when we are giving a lecture in person we’ll have an insight in mid-sentence . . . “Gosh, I never looked at it that way before . . . .” The energy of anticipation in the room, the slight performance anxiety of the “stand and deliver,” the affection that builds for and among students, our continuous work to reframe existing knowledge to accommodate emerging research, science, and scholarship – these are surely elements of why the teacher, too, finds moments of real inspiration in the classroom. Whether responding extemporaneously to a question asked spontaneously by a student, or having one’s inherited and honed approach challenged by an incisive student mounting a blackboard critique – we find our development as intellectuals is stunted in online exchange.

Why is it that online teaching/learning falls short in these ways? Part of the reason is surely that we are simply not at our most engaged when we are online. Without the physical classroom, we lack the heightened state of arousal motivated by the presence of other people and the many social stimuli that impinge on us, usually below the radar of our consciousness. In three-dimensional space, others invite our gaze with theirs and convey the salience of classroom discourse through facial expressions and body language we are hardwired to attend to.6 Such stimuli rarely make it through the Zoom interface. The energy of the classroom likely owes itself in part to the strangeness of the classroom space itself – and the fact that we dissociate it from areas for deskwork or domestic activities that mingle readily during the Covid era. Like the social environment provided by our peers, the three-dimensional topography we traverse every time we enter the classroom primes us physiologically for thinking and learning, for staying sharp and giving our best. When we go online, we lose these cues and instead receive a plethora of electronic distractors that work further against the pedagogical mission.

Our hope for the future . . .

As MIT contemplates the post-Covid campus, we want to offer our impassioned testimony about the costs to group learning experiences and “intellectual fun” we have felt in the virtualized classroom. These features are the essence of the MIT experience. Indeed, they are the essence of the college campus experience everywhere, the core of the research university, and the dream of Socratic pedagogy since “the groves of academe.” At least for our courses, which include lecture/problem set and seminar formats, online teaching can do much of the job of transferring specialized information, historical knowledge, and tools of thought.

But we expect everyone teaching these types of all-online subjects would agree with us that they miss out on the sort of enriching interpersonal interactions that lured us all to MIT in the first place; and they fall desperately short in the “spark department,” which is where creativity and innovation happen. College is not, or should not be, just “cookbook” learning. It is a shared endeavor that benefits from all of the physical and social resources of the university. In these difficult times, our fervent hope is that the Institute will find imaginative ways to marshal its resources to the fullest, ensuring that our faculty and students can soon recover what is most special about an MIT education.

  1. Colloquially known as “HTC Methods,” the subject 4.661 rotates among faculty in the History, Theory, and Criticism (HTC) section of the Department of Architecture. It currently has 17 graduate students enrolled, primarily from the Architecture Department; 12 are PhD candidates and 5 enrolled at the Master’s degree level.
  2. Geltner is teaching 11.431/15.426, “Introduction to Real Estate Finance & Investment,” with 47 students from Sloan, the Center for Real Estate, the Department of Urban Studies, Harvard cross-registrants, and a smattering of MIT undergrads; Jasanoff is teaching 20.420, “Principles of Molecular Bioengineering,” a required class for first-year graduate students in Biological Engineering, jointly led by Professor Ernest Fraenkel.
  3. Presumably at least somewhat less investment would be required going forward.
  4. To this point, we thank Krishna Rajagopal for pointing out the World Economic Forum summary found here:
  5. See MIT Open Learning’s helpful resource edited by Jim Goodell and Aaron Kessler at this URL:
  6. Notably, staff have also shared with us that they experience “an unexpected incapacity” when it comes to taking notes from committee meetings on Zoom. A task that seemed routine “in real life” seems unaccountably difficult when sorting what is important in the flattened interface of the screen.