May/June 2021Vol. XXXIII No. 5

What Will Remain Post-Pandemic?

Shigeru Miyagawa Meghan Perdue

As universities return to in-classroom teaching, what practices that emerged during the pandemic will carry over? 

While we are all anxious to get back to teaching and working on campus, it is unlikely that we will go back completely to the pre-pandemic ways, given the enormous disruption we are living through. We interviewed more than 30 MIT faculty members about teaching and working during the pandemic, and these interviews gave hints of what we might expect will remain once we begin teaching face-to-face again. While adoption of technology naturally played an important role, we found even more striking a fundamental shift in the faculty’s attitude toward students and teaching. We believe that this will have a deep and lasting impact beyond the pandemic.

Educating the whole student

A task force charged with planning MIT’s future in education has expressed “the hope that MIT will provide a more holistic education, with yet more focus on nurturing our students in intellect and spirit” (MIT News, 2/16/2021). Knowing students beyond just their academic interests changes the way one teaches. In remote teaching, we have often found ourselves in the students’ own living quarters, have seen and heard the challenges they are coping with. Many students do not have a quiet space for studying, forcing faculty to vie with their family and even pets for their attention. Others had trouble accessing suitable WiFi. The struggles that the instructors saw unfolding in front of them have allowed them to understand their students in ways that are not readily possible in an in-person class.

Instructors got glimpses into students’ lives in other ways as well. Knowing the stress that the students are under during the pandemic, many faculty members set aside time before, after, and even in the middle of class, for students to informally interact with their teachers and each other.

Instructors were surprised by how many students took advantage of these free-form sessions, and equally surprised by questions and answers that had intensity not seen in in-person meetings. These experiences have opened the instructors’ eyes to the strains that life has imposed on the students, including inequalities, which, in remote learning, have become amplified. This keen awareness of the “whole” student will carry over to post-pandemic teaching. It will serve as a way to educate students more holistically, and with empathy.

Keeping student attention

If students are going to learn, they need to pay attention. In a classroom, we take for granted that students pay attention, or at least that they are supposed to. But in online class, as an instructor lamented, “attention is a scarce resource.” To combat the scarcity of attention, instructors have experimented with ways to keep students focused on the lesson, and this awareness that one has to be creative in keeping students engaged, instead of taking it for granted, will carry over to teaching practices in the post-pandemic era.

Faculty experimented with different technology to engage with their students in the online space. As a replacement for the chalkboard, some turned to tablets to draw and animate their lectures in real time. Some created a green screen so that they could embed themselves into different settings, allowing the impression of being on stage with the slides splashed in the background. In this way the students can focus their attention on one image that renders the faculty and the slides together. Many faculty have reported that they will continue to make recordings of their lectures available to students as a resource, even when they are teaching on campus again.

One faculty member built what is called a Lightboard in his office for online teaching. Lightboard, which is often used in creating MOOCs, is a simple technology in which a large pane of glass is placed between the camera and the instructor. The instructor writes on the glass while lecturing, and the image through the camera is reversed, giving a mirror image, like the old Daguerreotype photography. In this way, the student can see the instructor looking at them at the same time that they can see the writing on the glass. He was thrilled with the result, and received many positive reviews from the students. When asked what he will do post-pandemic, he said that he was “scared of going back to using the board.” 

If an award is to be given for the most raves from instructors across disciplines, it is the chat feature in video conferencing platforms. One instructor said that when he first started to use Zoom, he saw a stream of postings on the chat, not only addressed to him but also to each other. He was puzzled by what appeared to be a distraction, but then saw that the students were engaging with the lesson and encouraging others to ask and answer questions. In a large lecture class, students liked the fact that their questions were promptly answered by a TA, which helped to keep their attention on the lesson. Many other faculty reported that the chat allowed students who weren’t comfortable speaking up in class an opportunity to participate in the discussion. Many are thinking of how they can recreate the chat experience when they return to in-person teaching.

Transcending the physical space leads to convenience and inclusiveness

Being online allows us to transcend the restrictions imposed by the physical nature of the in-person class and workplace. Some of these benefits will likely carry over to the post-pandemic era. 

By working online, we live “above the store,” and the sheer convenience of it has had some surprising results. It has led to better attendance at meetings, leading to larger and more inclusive participation. Institute faculty meetings before the pandemic were not always well attended, and as a faculty officer pointed out, it was sometimes uncertain whether they would attain the quorum of 30. During the pandemic, the attendance has skyrocketed to 170 faculty members at its peak. Some of this is attributable to people wishing to interact with their colleagues during the isolation, but the sheer convenience of not having to commute is surely a factor. In addition to the faculty, 125 non-faculty such as staff also attended, an unusually large number; they apparently felt more comfortable attending online. Not only did the online meeting bring in more faculty, it became more inclusive in making it inviting for non-faculty members to participate in governance. It is likely that, post-pandemic, meetings of all sorts will be in hybrid mode, and in some cases, completely online.

Some faculty want to keep the sheer convenience of online teaching, at least part of the time. Many appreciated the reduction in time spent commuting each day, noting that they were able to devote that time to their families or hobbies.

Others are interested in the possibilities that remote teaching could add, observing that they could attend conferences that they would otherwise have missed, or potentially participate remotely from distant research or study sites. Online office hours also worked well for many instructors, especially when the slots were made in 10-minute, one-on-one sessions with students. Many faculty reported that they would continue online office hours going forward, because they were much better attended than the in-person office hours before the pandemic.

Ever since the Internet took over our lives, the local and the global have been steadily merging, and this trend has hit a crescendo in the pandemic. Instructors invited speakers from institutions around the world to join their online classes, often scholars whose work the students read, so that the students could engage with them directly. It also helps to bring variation; instead of hearing just one instructor, students are exposed to multiple points of view. In one case, a class had 32 outside speakers, each joining for around 20 minutes. Others used the opportunity to engage communities they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to, such as one faculty member who had her students do a joint project with a middle school class. And the merging of the local-global was not limited to teaching. Reading groups and research presentations, an essential component of research, found participants from across the globe. The benefits for teaching and research are so clear that it is hard to imagine that we would want to reverse the continuing merging of the local-global for teaching and research after the pandemic.

In summary

We believe that the experience of the last year, while certainly a disruption, has transformed the way that faculty interact with students and the community they work in. This attitude shift will carry over to the post-pandemic era. Faculty will be more aware of the “whole student,” taking into account their lives outside the classroom. Also, they have an increased awareness of the need for creating teaching practices that keep the students engaged. They can continue using technology tools that enhance their teaching, from recorded video lectures to real-time chats. Finally, by teaching online, faculty can introduce their students to a larger world of scholars beyond their own campus, thereby substantially broadening their learning opportunities. Beyond teaching, the online mode has made it possible for many more people to participate in meetings, including non-faculty, making governance more inclusive.