The suddenly remote semester
As covid-19 spread into the US, MIT made the seemingly unthinkable call to send students, faculty, and staff home. Here’s how that decision went down—and how the Institute retooled on the fly.
Read this at MIT Technology Review
At the start of the spring semester, the Institute asked members of the MIT community who’d just been in China to self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent the possible spread of covid-19 on campus. When 200 or so students returned to class from quarantine in mid-February symptom-free, Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, thought: “Things are good. We are fine.” His sense of relief lasted three days.
New covid-19 hot spots began emerging. Having closely monitored the epidemic’s spread since early January, a team led by MIT Medical director Cecilia Stuopis and director of emergency management Suzanne Blake realized that even more people who’d been abroad would need to self-quarantine. And it soon became clear that MIT had to prepare for the real possibility that the coronavirus would indeed spread onto campus.
On the evening of Monday, March 2, Blake asked six MIT administrators to pull together working groups to figure out how to respond if that happened. They charged three groups with making a plan to keep things running in academics, research, and business should covid-19 disrupt MIT operations. Three more would coordinate MIT’s medical response, think through the implications for students and their living situations, and handle communications. As chair of the newly formed Academic Continuity Working Group (ACWG), Waitz assembled a team of 25 and convened its first meeting that Wednesday.
MIT’s dean of digital learning, physics professor Krishna Rajagopal, would play a key role on that team. He recalls thinking that the ACWG would spend weeks figuring out what scenarios to plan for and then devote a few more weeks to the planning itself.
It turned out the time to make such plans would be measured in days, not weeks.
“It wasn’t clear yet what was coming, but it was clear we had to pay attention,” Rajagopal says. “And it got more clear by the day.” On Thursday, March 5, the Institute announced a ban on all MIT-sponsored international travel and canceled all on--campus K–12 programs—including Campus Preview Weekend—and all nonacademic events involving 150 or more people.
As the ACWG began scenario planning, a subgroup dedicated to remote teaching and learning dove into nearly round-the-clock planning to make sure MIT was prepared to offer instruction virtually if needed.
Their immediate worry was the 21 classes with 150 or more students. “We thought if we replaced the very largest lectures with something online, we could run until spring break and figure out at spring break what to do next,” Rajagopal says. On Sunday, he and Waitz told the faculty teaching those classes that they’d have until Tuesday, March 10, to switch to an online format. Some pushed back, saying that was too soon.
But that same day, Blake called Waitz to tell him that public health experts were now recommending social distancing. So he shifted the ACWG’s focus. Instead of planning for a range of scenarios, they’d need to prepare to execute the one that was most likely: going remote. “On Monday, it was clear we were only planning for one scenario: we were going to empty out the campus,” he says. “It was just a question of when.”
That Monday, March 9, Waitz instituted a daily 8 a.m. Zoom call with the original ACWG team along with all MIT deans and department heads, many faculty committee chairs and associate department heads, and key staff members—about 130 people in all. “We may be advising students to go home and stay home,” Waitz announced on the first call. “It’s my sincere hope we get to spring break, but I don’t know if that will occur.”
By Monday night, it was clear it wouldn’t. At 7:45 on Tuesday morning, MIT made the call to end classes on Friday the 13th and send undergrads home for the rest of the semester. During that morning’s call, Stuopis compared MIT’s dorms—nine of which have more than 250 students—to cruise ships. Emptying them would decrease the density of people on campus to allow social distancing. (Grad students could remain, but those who could leave campus and work remotely would be encouraged to do so.) “We think this is the best way to preserve the health of every member of the community,” she said.
The decision would be announced later that day, leaving many questions to answer in the meantime. “There were a zillion implications,” Waitz says. He likens it to a technical problem that takes many steps—even though you know the answer at the outset. “We told them the answer: Okay, we’re going to move everyone off campus; we’re gonna end classes a week early. But there were 20 steps to solve that problem that we hadn’t yet solved,” he says. They had to sort out what the decision meant for things like financial aid, housing, and dining, and how to accommodate students who couldn’t safely return home. “We spent the day trying to solve the problem, which is a hard one, so we could write it down and get [the details] out to people,” he says.
One remarkable decision was that in addition to refunding housing and dining fees for the remainder of the semester, the Institute would convert the financial aid funds that would have covered housing and dining into cash payments that went directly to the students themselves. Waitz says that while it might have seemed odd to refund people money they had not paid, he and Stuart Schmill ’86, dean of admissions and student financial services, and Chancellor Cindy Barnhart, SM ’86, PhD ’88, realized that those students’ families might need the funds, given the economic upheaval caused by covid-19. “It was really an MIT thing to do,” Waitz says, calling it “a decision MIT should be proud of.”
“On Monday, it was clear we were only planning for one scenario: we were going to empty out the campus. It was just a question of when.”
By late afternoon on Tuesday, students had received the email from President L. Rafael Reif saying Friday would be the last day of on-campus classes. Undergraduates were to leave by the following Tuesday—and couldn’t come back after spring break. The rest of the semester would be taught online.
As the news sank in, a group of students gathered in Killian Court for an epic session of cathartic screaming. As someone hoisted a Purell dispenser in the air, dark clouds scudded overhead, mirroring the general mood. The semester would be finished from thousands of bedrooms scattered around the globe, not in the company of friends down the hall or fellow tacklers of impossible p-sets. “IHTFP” may have been carved into their brass rats, but no one wanted to spend the rest of the semester anyplace else.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic. Students packed up their rooms and said their goodbyes between their remaining classes as staff, faculty advisors, heads of houses, and GRAs worked tirelessly to help them move out.
By Thursday the number of covid-19 cases in greater Boston had doubled and Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. All MIT employees who could do so were asked to begin working at home.
Waitz’s team realized that allowing students to stay until Tuesday was too risky. Suzy Nelson, dean for student life, said she could accelerate the plan to move them off campus, and Reif authorized the strategy at 6 p.m. Classes would be canceled on Friday; MIT would pay to store students’ boxed-up items and subsidize travel expenses to help them leave by Sunday night. As one ACWG-led group crafted a message to students to convey this, others were building a form for students to submit expenses and a ticket system to capture all requests. At 10:30 that night, they sent the announcement with a link to the form in an MIT advisory alert. “We didn’t have positive cases, but people needed to leave, not hang out for five days and say goodbye to campus,” Waitz says.
On Friday the 13th, all graduate students able to conduct their research remotely were asked to start doing so. On the 15th, PIs were asked to scale down on-campus research to achieve 10 to 20% of normal lab density by the 20th. This meant shifting to remote work whenever possible and allowing only essential research to continue on campus, such as lab work that would result in significant data and sample loss if discontinued, work to maintain critical equipment and safe standby mode in labs, and covid-19 work that could address the current crisis.
Within a day or two, campus largely emptied out. All that remained were essential staff and about 200 undergrads who could not return home, some 1,300 grad students, and 500 partners, spouses, and children. In the span of a week, MIT went from deciding to move large lectures online to scaling back research and sending undergraduates and some 10,000 staff members home.
“It felt like we’d decide something one day, and the next day realize it was not enough. And then the next day, realize that that was not enough,” Waitz says. “Having people gone protected the safety of the MIT community and the community around us.”
“Two-thirds is okay”
The early start to spring break gave faculty two weeks to plan for the suddenly remote semester.
With 1,251 classes all going online, beefing up the technical infrastructure was critical. Within days, Mark Silis, president for information systems and technology (IS&T), worked with his team to negotiate campus-wide licenses for Zoom, Slack, and several academic tools. They also boosted Dropbox allocations for file storage and worked with the Division of Student Life to get loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots to students who needed them.
Meanwhile, chemistry professor and faculty chair Rick Danheiser had recognized the need to rethink MIT’s grading policies. Not all students would be in environments conducive to learning. And faculty would be conducting classes from home, many teaching online for the first time with little time to prepare. Some would be juggling those duties with parenting responsibilities. Danheiser’s team concluded that it would be impossible to assign letter grades fairly under the circumstances. The Institute became one of the first schools to mandate universal pass/no record grading for the semester (Columbia, Harvard, and others would soon follow). “It’s important that we focus more than ever on learning than grading, striving to maintain classic rigor while worrying less about grades,” Danheiser explained in a virtual MIT town hall meeting on April 7. “We have to fundamentally trust in the motivation of our students.”
But faculty still needed to figure out how to teach classes remotely. MIT pioneered OpenCourseWare in 2002 and launched the MITx online learning platform in 2012, but even so, only about 20% of MIT faculty have developed courses for MITx, according to Rajagopal. “There are places at MIT where people have thought a lot about how to teach online really well,” he says. “But most of the 1,000 faculty had never thought about it—and had to do it in two weeks.”
It wouldn’t have been possible to create high-end video for all 1,251 classes. Departments would decide on their own methods, and faculty might have to improvise. Waitz advised a “pen knife and book of matches” approach—for example, taking pictures of lecture notes with a phone and sending them to students.
On March 11, his last day on campus, Rajagopal created a video in which he set expectations and offered advice to faculty. He told them that replicating their classes online at 100% with just two weeks to prepare was unrealistic—everyone would have to arrive at their own version of what he called “two-thirds is okay.” For many, that might mean ditching the traditional lecture.
While long lectures can work well in person, watching a 50-minute lecture over Zoom can be deadly. Rajagopal says it’s better to break online lessons into seven- to 10-minute chunks, whether they’re delivered live or posted for students to view anytime. “Nobody can pay attention longer than that,” he says. And in live sessions, it’s important to mix in things that actively engage the students, such as breakout sessions or polls they can answer by holding up their fingers.
Sheryl Barnes, Open Learning’s director of residential education, and Janet Rankin, director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, ran webinars on remote teaching and pulled together a “Teach Remote” website of curated resources. (They also created a crowdsourced site letting anyone post best practices, such as tips for using Zoom with low bandwidth, and another curated website of remote-learning resources for students.)
MIT’s Digital Learning Lab (DLL) fellows, who help faculty members develop classes for MITx, also jumped in to help. The afternoon the decision to go remote was being finalized, Meghan Perdue, the DLL fellow for the School of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), developed a two-hour crash course to help faculty shift their classes online. She then proceeded to give 15 workshops to SHASS departments in eight days, followed by a week of three to four small-group training sessions a day. She also shared her materials with DLL fellows elsewhere on campus so they could offer similar workshops.
“You might think the absence of the physical campus would make you feel the campus is important. But what’s important is the people in it.”
Faculty got creative. Several departments took advantage of the fact that grad students were allowed to remain on campus after the undergrads left. Gloria Choi, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, sent TAs into the lab to do the rest of the semester’s experiments and collect data for the undergrad class 9.12 (Experimental Molecular Neurobiology). The TAs then scoured YouTube for videos of most of these classic experiments. When classes resumed, the undergrads were able to do their labs virtually by watching the videos and then using the raw data gathered by the grad students to do analysis and write lab reports. Likewise, some course teams in chemical engineering captured video footage of TAs doing experiments. And others, like senior lecturer Lodovica Illari, had already developed virtual lab tools. While students in her 12.307 (Weather and Climate Laboratory) class normally do weather simulation experiments in the lab to better understand the theory behind them, she was able to employ virtual weather visualization tools she and EAPS professor John Marshall and research scientist Bill McKenna had created for larger classes that rely on demos.
Some faculty who use blackboards extensively wanted to keep doing their lectures in empty halls. Barnes’s team supported that until campus access became limited, and only a few professors were granted permission. “Some of those classes involve really long equations,” Barnes explains. Those would be hard to fit in a screen: as she put it, “There’s no substitute for eight wide blackboards.”
Others found ways to adapt at home. For his class in feedback system design, electrical engineering and computer science professor Jacob White created a makeshift lecture hall. He can scrawl on a whiteboard, levitate magnets, and annotate graphs from a live demo of a mildly unstable system as students watch and ask questions via chat.
At the first 8 a.m. meeting after classes resumed online on March 30, the discussion about how it was going wasn’t about system crashes or technical glitches. “All the IT worked,” says Rajagopal. “Instead, we had a 10-minute debate about pedagogy and good teaching practices.” And that same week, over 500 volunteer staff and faculty “success coaches,” who’d been recruited in a matter of days, began weekly check-in meetings with undergrads to offer support.
The remote half of the semester revealed some unexpected benefits of online learning. Rajagopal mentions one lecture class normally held in 26-100, in which no one ever raised a hand to ask a question. But students started using the chat feature in Zoom for just that purpose. A TA began monitoring the chat for questions and interrupting to let the professor explain things more clearly. That doesn’t mean classes should use Zoom on campus, says Rajagopal, “but it does mean that if you’re lecturing in 26-100, you’d better find a way to take questions.”
Barnes says some professors concluded that live lectures aren’t always the best use of the time faculty and students spend together. Assigning recorded lectures ahead of class allows more active engagement with students during class. “Mostly people don’t learn by listening,” she says, adding that giving students opportunities to practice the material and offering specific feedback provide the richest learning experience.
“You might think the absence of the physical campus would make you feel the physical campus is important,” says Waitz. “But really it’s the opposite. You realize what’s important is the people who are in it.”
So as the spring semester wound down on laptops around the world, Waitz co-led a team planning for a range of fall scenarios, from bringing everyone back on campus (unlikely) to staying fully online (which no one wants)—and several in between, such as having half the students on campus for half the time. Students were asked to weigh in through a “We Solve for Fall” idea bank. A decision, based on public health guidance, was expected by early July.
Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning and a professor of mechanical engineering, spoke at the virtual town hall in April about how challenging it is to re-create the MIT experience online. “There’s a very special magic on campus,” he said. And then he gleefully mixed two geeky cultural references in a way that rang true to everyone glued to a computer screen instead of bumping shoulders in the Infinite: “Hogwarts is not the same without the wizards. And we look forward to seeing you all back here on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.”
Story Image: Adcoverboy via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0