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Engagement and Distance at the HILT


HILT conference participants: (top row) Melissa Franklin and Lawrence Lessig; (bottom row) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Robert Lue

HILT conference participants: (top row) Melissa Franklin and Lawrence Lessig; (bottom row) Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Robert Lue

Photographs on top row by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications (HPAC). Bottom from left: Kris Snibbe/HPAC and Katherine Taylor/HPAC

The third annual Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference convened on September 16 in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School, as more than 300 participants from across the University—professors, administrators, learning and teaching specialists—gathered to consider this year’s theme: “Engagement and Distance.” The importance of student engagement—“when they are challenged, when they own the experience, when they care”—is well established, HILT director Erin Driver-Linn, one of the conference organizers, observed in her opening remarks. President Drew Faust followed with welcoming remarks, asking, “How do space and distance influence student engagement?” The day revealed that distance can take many forms: not only physical but social or emotional distance as well, for example. And so can engagement.


Institutional Adaptation

The opening and closing panels addressed “institutional adaptation.” “The borderline between innovation and re-discovery is actually rather slim,” said Christensen professor of business administration David Garvin, who facilitated the first of these. (Much of his research and writing concerns pedagogy, including changes in the Business School’s teaching and curriculum.) “Much innovation is actually creative borrowing. Do we really need more educational innovation, or only wider adoption of existing methods?” He cautioned that one of the biggest obstacles to effectiveness is “technology in search of a user—taking the latest innovation and pushing it out to users without taking account of their needs.”

Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt professor of physics, weighed in from the panel by announcing that “in physics, we steal as much as we can from whomever we can.” She referred to Garvin’s earlier mention of Harvard Law School’s invention of the case method with a tongue-in-cheek footnote: “I’m pretty sure there was a Russian who did it first,” an allusion to the Soviet Union’s Cold War habit of claiming priority in almost all areas of invention. Franklin dissented from a model of learning as “information transfer from my head to your head.” “Get out of my head—don’t bug me!” she exclaimed. One of the biggest goals for the physics teacher, she explained, was “trying to get the students to do their own synthesizing—we never show them how to put it all together.” For Franklin, one of the great underappreciated resources at Harvard is its instructional laboratories, which can be raw spaces for experiment: “We don’t allow anything ‘nice’ in the lab—everything is movable, nothing nailed down, cables are exposed. Drama students use the same space and they have no respect and follow no rules. Physics students follow rules: ‘I can’t move this table.’ I try to teach them a lack of respect.”

Furman professor of law Lawrence Lessig next opined that “the important point of education is to lead students to a place where they need to struggle with an idea. It’s a little like exercise…not that I know anything about exercise.” Though Lessig made his name in academia as an expert on cyber law, he recalled opposing the introduction of Wi-Fi into classrooms in the 1990s, explaining that he didn’t want it “for the same reason I don’t want to teach in a sports bar—a place where people have a constant out”—something that enables them to avoid that challenging idea, for example. His 1990s colleagues countered that Lessig was being a paternalist, and he answered, “Yes, exactly. I have a sense of how to structure the environment so they can achieve what they want to achieve.”

Professor of English and of African American Studies Glenda Carpio added an example of managing student engagement in a class she taught on black humor. “Students wanted to talk about race and gender in an impolite way, getting into some denigrating aspects of identity politics. I told them this wasn’t the space for that. So they did a Tumblr blog and a Facebook page and created a play that allowed them to talk about micro-aggression.”

Garvin asserted that “change is inherently difficult, and slow,” and quoted cartoon character Pogo to the effect that “Most people prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.” Carpio responded that dissatisfaction with the status quo is, as Garvin had said, one of the key variables in advancing change, so “the challenge we have is how to define satisfaction collectively.” Franklin said that a crucial point of orientation can come from “being able to write down the goals of what you are trying to do with students. It is incredibly difficult, and in physics, we have hired someone to do it for us.” Lessig cautioned, “At the institutional level, I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between the ease of counting and the production of education.”


Pedagogy in Practice

Seven breakout sessions followed, each exploring some lesson derived from recent experiments in the practice of instruction. In one on “Simulations, Games, and Instructional Design for Engagement,” assistant professor of education Karen Brennan asked participants to pair up and assemble a duck from six Lego pieces, with everyone receiving the same six pieces. When the 27 plastic ducks were collected on a “duck pond” at the front of the room, Brennan asserted that no two were identical, and that she had seen 100 unique ducks appear at a similar demonstration a few weeks before. This was an example of “constructionism,” which takes seriously the fact (as Brennan put it) that “We know that the best learning experiences do not position the learner as passive.”

Selen Turkay, a HILT research fellow, next explained, with photographs, a large project for Harvard School of Public Health students enrolled in two related courses: the semester-long “International Humanitarian Response,” taught by Stephanie Kayden, instructor in medicine and director of the Lavine Family Humanitarian Studies Initiative at the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard; and a two-week intensive “Humanitarian Response Intensive Course,” taught by professor of medicine Michael VanRooyen with Kayden. These courses put the students in the woods for three days to teach crisis management by simulating a natural disaster in two countries of sub-Saharan Africa. There were both well-defined and ill-defined problems to face. Eighteen teams of five to seven students apiece practiced offering humanitarian aid by taking roles that required them to provide medical services or water or shelter. They pitched their own tents, dealing with cold weather and rain. “That upped the tension more on the students,” Turkay explained.  Pedagogical strategies included “guided discovery” and “just-in-time teaching,” as when students unexpectedly encountered a villager wounded by a land mine. A central learning goal was “stress management,” she said, adding that the organizers took cortisol measurements from 86 participants during the simulation. “Stress undermined performance as team members,” she said. By providing a kind of rehearsal, the simulation could possibly “inoculate” the participants against future stress to some degree.

In another breakout, “Design and Teach Using HarvardX,” Trudy Van Houten, clinical instructor in radiology at Harvard Medical School, explained how her edX course, “AnatomyX: Musculoskeletal Cases,” succeeded in teaching anatomy to 11,000 students. For situations like the current Ebola crisis in Africa, she could envision “targeted courses” that might equip healthcare workers with the precise information they would need to help at disaster sites.

In the same session, 300th Anniversary University Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich described her Harvard edX course, “Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You,” which educates its students in how to extract historical knowledge from objects in their local environments. Doing so allows students to “connect to the past and to each other,” she said. Although the objects the course examines reflect plenty of American history, only 43 percent of the students live in the United States. The objects scrutinized include a nineteenth-century Singer sewing machine that Ulrich obtained—and because Singer was one of the first companies to globalize, the research on it turned up “a twin of our machine in Tokyo,” she noted.

Robert Lue, the faculty chair of HarvardX (among many other positions and titles), joined that session and clarified an interesting point for the group regarding an oft-cited statistic about distance learning: that only 7 percent of those who enroll finish their course. “Only 20 to 25 percent intend to finish at the beginning of the course,” Lue explained. “They are looking for something in particular within the topic area.” This argues for modularization, he said, which “allows learners to choose particular things that they would like to do. Modularization can drive more personalized learning.” He also observed that the international classroom offered an advantage by having students in different time zones. “Lots of undergraduates like to work and study in the middle of the night,” Lue pointed out, “so time-zone differences mean that people all over the world can be helping and communicating with students about the course.”


Perspectives on Learning

After lunch, a session on “Early Research in Teaching and Learning” began with a visitor from New York City, Malia Mason, Gantcher associate professor of business at Columbia Business School. In a talk on “The Battle for Mindshare,” she described her research on students’ use of digital technologies and the effect they have on the allocation of attention. She attached software to 112 students’ laptop computers to collect data on how much time they were spending at various online activities; in a 24-hour period, for example, her subjects were on Facebook for a median of 20 minutes. “They love Facebook!” Mason reported: subjects rated it at 6.1 on a 7.0 scale of pleasure.

But discretionary time is very constrained, given that student schedules require time to sleep, eat, groom, commute, and attend classes. The result is that digital diversions that consume only 7.2 percent of one’s day can eat up one-fifth of all discretionary time, “so [those diversions are] crowding out exercise, studying, learning, or time with family,” she explained. The basic dynamic is motivational; understandably, “Students overinvest in activities they like.” Mason suggested providing them with a “counterfactual”—like an on-screen clock that counts down the time they are eating up on social media that could be used to learn, say, a second language.

Samuel Moulton, HILT’s director of educational research and assessment, followed, asking what he called the “darkest, hardest question” in the field: “How do we measure learning and teaching?”  He showed extensive data on attendance at lectures, and how it declined during the semester and even during the course of a week. An audience poll done with smartphones proved accurate: the most important reason for attending or missing lectures involved a student’s reason for taking a course. Pre-medical requirements were correlated with high attendance.  Moulton added that lecture attendance is a measure of student engagement: “People vote with their feet.”

Bharat Anand, Byers professor of business administration and faculty chair of HBX, the Business School’s distance-learning initiative, described a platform that HBX marketed to students who had to enroll in three related business courses called CORe, offering the basics of business analytics, economics for managers, and financial accounting. The “real” Business School boasts class attendance of 97 percent, Anand said, largely because student grades depend in part on class participation. The CORe design therefore built in some participation by “cold calls” on students via an algorithm that sends a question needing a quick response—and one that is available to the whole class to view. “Peer help” is another feature that enables students to ask a question and get answers from others in the class. “Seventy to 90 percent of the questions get answered by the peers,” he reported.

The HBX business model, he said, was “high fixed costs up front and, hopefully, low variable costs in the long run.” (Building the platform took 18 months and employed 35 staffers.) The pioneer CORe course enrolled 600 students, 21 percent of them from Harvard College (equally distributed across the humanities, social science, and STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—concentrations). One-quarter received financial aid with the CORe tuition of $1,500 for the three-course package. One thing learned from the first CORe offering is that “People will pay for online learning,” Anand declared. “MOOCs are not the only approach.”


Institutional Adaptation: The View from Above

The second panel on institutional adaptation, facilitated by Robert Reischauer, former senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, concluded the day. Bates College president Clayton Spencer, who was for 15 years vice president for policy at Harvard, asserted that “the sleeping giant of the Research-1 university has just woken up and gotten interested in what we [small liberal-arts colleges] thought we did best: teaching. They are using brain science and throwing all they’ve got at this.” She added that “the liberal-arts colleges have gotten pretty lazy about the ‘Small is good’ idea. Large can be very good, very powerful, and very beautiful. Unless we get over ourselves in liberal arts, we’re in a heap of trouble, because we’ve lost our distinctive market niche.” Distance learning does offer advantages to places like Bates, where “you can do a thesis on Emily Dickinson and access her papers [via the online Emily Dickinson Collection at Houghton Library] and work with the chair of the Bates English department.” 

Huntington Lambert, dean of Harvard’s division of continuing education, described the diversity of that division’s student ages: from 12 years to 90, with a mean of 34. The division boasts a thousand courses and enrolls students from 117 countries; 30 percent of its students are from overseas. Lambert is deeply concerned about the 20 to 30 million Americans, and the two billion people globally, “who are being left behind” because they lack the education needed to survive in the emerging information economy. “If we at Harvard can be innovators in this,” he said, “I look forward to seeing all the public universities of the world copy us.”

Peter Bol, vice provost for advances in learning, observed that “We see a decline in rigorous note-taking in classes. If you are not taking notes in lecture, you are not retaining very much.” He added that there are “incredibly poor attendance rates in many courses,” and that “over the last 15 or 20 years, there has been a sharp decline in the amount of time students spend outside of class working on a class. They must be doing something else, as they aren’t sleeping any more. They’re making a judgment about the value of classes.” Reischauer added a jovial rejoinder: “If you don’t have to attend classes, and the median grade is A…”

James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggested that the University was getting the balance of experimentation in learning and maintaining established forms about right. Regarding new distance-learning courses, “If you are thinking of a certificate-granting program, we don’t know enough yet on whether to give academic credit. At Harvard it is less important to be first than to be right.”

Spencer said that during her years at Harvard, she always thought that the University’s size and complexity “created a tremendous amount of white space. It was easy to grab the ball and run down the line with it. At Bates, it is more like being in a Boston Whaler: it’s easier to steer and turn around, but every one in the boat wants a say in where it goes.”

Lambert observed that whereas in real estate, “It is location, location, and location,” in higher education “it is faculty, faculty, and faculty. If we understand that our job is making that Harvard faculty available to adult part-time learners, it actually becomes fairly simple. And we must have innovation going on all the time, all over Harvard, wherever faculty touch students.” His colleague Bol cited several dyadic tensions: between innovation and production; between free courses and sustainability (“a little bit from a lot of people makes education more sustainable for everybody”); between content and form; and between creating knowledge and transmitting knowledge. Lambert responded that in a research university, creating and transmitting knowledge could be convergent: “Invention is a process of spending money to create knowledge; innovation is a process of spending knowledge to create money.”

Provost Alan Garber closed the conference with a few observations. During the day, participants had more than once fondly recalled a spontaneous outburst at the inaugural HILT conference from Rita Hauser, L ’58 (funder of the program with her husband, Gustave M. Hauser, J.D. ’53): “Let’s blow it up!” she exclaimed concerning the traditional, ossified model of learning. But Garber smilingly gave his impression that “we haven’t blown anything up, nor is that necessarily what we do best. Universities do evolution much better than revolution.”

He said that “teaching an online course is much more time-consuming than anyone expected—maybe three to four times what a conventional course takes. Yet we still have an oversupply of faculty members wanting to teach online.” He declared that “our core mission remains to educate Harvard students, and we believe that the better we get at educating Harvard students, the better will be the materials we have to offer the world.”

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