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How Harvard and MIT will teach with classrooms empty

Videoconferencing with live and prerecorded lectures, links to materials, even virtual whiteboards await students

A man wears a face mask while walking across campus at MIT on Tuesday.
A man wears a face mask while walking across campus at MIT on Tuesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff/file

Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, will spend part of his spring break learning how to teach all over again.

Alcock is among hundreds of faculty who will begin teaching completely online when classes resume after spring break on March 23, Harvard announced Tuesday as part its effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amherst and Smith colleges will also be shifting to online classes.

“Given the circumstances, nationally and internationally, this seems like a rational choice to me," Alock said.

Alcock has never taught an online class before, though Harvard is one of the pioneers of Internet education. Eight years ago, the school teamed up with MIT to create edX, a nonprofit organization that offers thousands of college-level courses at little or no cost.

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Millions of people who aren’t students at Harvard, MIT, or other top-drawer universities take courses through EdX. But that system relies on prerecorded video and audio instruction, so it’s not built to deliver the live experience that students pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for. Instead Harvard, MIT, and other colleges will be using the popular teleconferencing service Zoom to operate virtual classrooms.

Harvard has posted lengthy online instructions for first-time online instructors, with tips on lighting, camera angles, and even a reminder to look good for the camera: “Take a minute to put on a nice shirt and comb your hair,” Harvard said in its advisory to faculty. “If using a headset (which helps participants hear you better!), make sure it isn’t tangling your hair up. You may discover that getting ready for your work from home day is energizing — and your coworkers will appreciate not having to see your bedhead.”

Setting up Zoom accounts is quick and easy, but education software analyst Phil Hill said that universities will also need to implement “learning management systems." These are programs such as Canvas, Brightspace, and Moodle with which instructors can post videos and reading materials, set up chat rooms for student interactions, or keep track of student grades.

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Hill said about 90 percent of US colleges use learning management systems to deliver some of their courses — about one out of three US college students take at least one online class. Still, Hill said, many instructors have never used this teaching method and won’t know of its many features, such as how to field questions and other feedback from students.

“A lot of faculty will either not use it at all or just put a syllabus up there," said Hill, a partner at the research firm MindWires LLC.

Getting instructors up to speed may require the assistance of an instructional designer. These are specialists who tailor traditional courses for presentation via the Internet. An instructional designer makes certain students and faculty can easily find their way around the virtual classroom — where to find assignments, for example, review past lectures, or look up supplemental reading materials.

But even the best online learning system can’t replace hands-on training.

For instance, Alcock’s class includes asteroid observations using a large telescope on the roof of a building on the Harvard campus. “But we lucked out,” Alcock said. “We’ve completed it." Otherwise, he said, the students would have had rely on video transmitted from a telescope in Arizona that can be remotely controlled.

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Still, Alcock said he’ll miss the personal interactions with the 10 first-year students he instructs in astronomy. “I actually really do get to know them," he said. “I think it will have a different feel to it.”—

But lab work remains part of the course throughout the semester for many other classes. At Princeton University, officials are urging faculty to have students analyze data collected in previous experiments. Or the instructor can shoot video of himself or herself conducting an experiment, while students get the necessary measurements by watching the video. Princeton also suggests the use of online services that let students conduct simulated experiments without entering a lab.

Despite the limitations of online training, students at elite schools like Harvard and Princeton will probably do fine, according to Justin Reich, assistant professor of comparative media studies at MIT. But Reich warns students at less prestigious schools are likely to suffer.

Reich’s research found that low-income students are consistently more likely to drop out of online courses than more affluent students. In one study involving community college students in Washington state, all online students had lower grades and higher dropout rates than those who were taught in classrooms. Black and Hispanic students fared worse than white and Asian students.

“If a gazillion schools and colleges are shut down and turn their learning online, the students we should be most worried about are students with lower prior achievement," Reich said. "Our most vulnerable students are going to have the hardest time in this transition.”

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.