Grappling with a global pandemic in class, as a class

September 21, 2020

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of International LawJonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of International Law, adapted his digital governance course to incorporate what everyone was really focused on in mid-spring of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of “compartmentalizing” between class and crisis, he reworked the syllabus to respond to students’ needs and evolving experiences. Zittrain replaced the final exam with collaborative reports in which students examined aspects of the pandemic through the lens of digital governance dilemmas. “The idea was to offer students an opportunity to apply what they learned in the course to problems that were on everybody’s mind.”

The benefits: An anonymous student interest poll showed that every student in the class wanted to shift to studying COVID-19 in groups. Students brought energy and enthusiasm to their work together, ultimately creating substantial reports examining issues like misinformation and digital contact tracing. Moreover, as Zittrain reflected, “It had them work with one another in ways they might not have before, so that seems to me to be the real compounding pay-off.”

“Trying to continue to be responsive to events and the varied circumstances that it will cause in students’ lives — it puts much more on the table to be reconsidered.”

The challenges: Pivoting the structure of the final course assignment also meant changing how that work was evaluated. Exams, Zittrain notes, are often structured to evaluate competency by artificially limiting questions to probe a certain set of skills developed in the course. Working collectively to report on the pandemic calls for structural reversal away from rigidity and towards openness and flexibility, which means leaning away from templates and being ready to adapt in real-time. Switching from letter-style grades to pass/fail helped ease student stress around the grading of group work, while the students’ intrinsic motivation to produce good work for the public resulted in far more hours of intense study and writing than would have been spent preparing for an exam.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Stay flexible. Circumstances will continue to change over the fall and spring semesters. Zittrain cautions, “Be ready to improvise again. This pandemic isn’t going to be gone by next spring. There’ll be a new set of questions” including how to best respond to new student needs. Be prepared to seek those needs out and adjust for them.
  • Give students opportunities to work together and show them how. Allowing students to make sense of their experiences together offers the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom to a rapidly evolving world alongside their peers and professor. Zittrain also took the time to talk with students in class about how to do research together as a group, since many, he notes, may not have had the opportunity to do that in the past.
  • Lean into work that speaks to this time. Zittrain underscores that the applied approach his class took importantly “helps us all try to take the initiative to do work that matters. We get a choice about what we spend our time on. That’s true as academics. That’s true as lawyers.” Engaging in understanding the COVID-19 pandemic together allows us to do work that impacts students and the world around us in a time when that’s sorely needed.

Bottom line: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of social life and study. There is a great deal for students to explore and understand in order to make sense of this shared crisis. Rather than simply trying to replicate prior coursework, professors should consider adjusting syllabi to adapt to the pandemic. Doing so is not only possible but also rewarding for the entire classroom community and beyond.