When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in early 2020, it was clear that higher education needed to shift how it operated in both the short and long term. Lockdowns nationwide caused schools to quickly transition to remote learning; over a year later, many schools are still operating in this manner. It is estimated that the change in instructional practice will have a far-reaching impact in the field beyond the current pandemic. 

Recognizing the need to document how higher education has been affected and evolved during the current crisis, in April 2020 the Michelson 20MM Foundation awarded a Spark grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Office of Open Learning, who would chronicle their campus-wide digital transformation. To share insights and learnings, Open Learning recently published a series of recorded interviews with professors and staff as they reflect on their experience teaching and learning during the pandemic. 

Below are the recorded interviews and major themes shared by each professor and staff member from a wide range of disciplines:

Keeril Makan- Professor of Music


Within his composing class, Professor Makan had two types of interactions with his students: as a group and individually. The shift to meet via Zoom has not been terribly disruptive since Professor Makan has a piano at home, and, for the purposes of this class, audio quality is not as important.

One assignment, however, was severely impacted by the pandemic–composing a piece for MIT’s orchestra to perform. The goal of this assignment was to write a piece for more than one instrument. Fortunately, Professor Makan found two individuals willing to help the class perform their compositions: a husband and wife team. For this assignment, however, there were audio quality concerns, with which the IT staff assisted. 

Within Professor Makan’s department, the greatest challenge is ensemble class because it is not possible to simulate this in an online environment. Instructors are looking for creative ways to address the challenge, such as recording and multi-tracking large group performances. Similar to other departments, familiarity with technology is often a factor when it comes to which faculty members are comfortable with this method. To overcome this challenge, other faculty members are shifting their performing ensembles to focus on literature and analysis rather than the performance itself, a type of learning that is often overlooked and is seen as an unexpected benefit.

Haynes Miller- Professor of Mathematics


Professor Miller was initially concerned that the shift away from face-to-face instruction would have a strong impact on student outcomes and the sense of community that had been built during the semester to date. To combat this, he made a concerted effort to ensure his instructional materials were rigorously developed so a student could review them asynchronously and still benefit. Professor Miller also maintained a live lecture via Zoom with the use of a tablet to share notes and equations. While there was initial trepidation regarding incorporating the technology into his teaching routine, he soon realized the value it could provide for students. In fact, Professor Miller found that continued use of technology made it more comfortable to use these tools to enhance his remote teaching experience. He shared a mindset that has been demonstrated by many effective educators during this period, which is to “Try it and see what works best.”

Over the course of the year, Professor Miller also found Zoom allowed his students to be more interactive and in different ways than traditional face-to-face instruction can. Particularly, he discovered that the chat feature can be a good way to foster student engagement as the chat enables teachers to ask students to share out their thoughts publicly while also providing a place for students to privately discuss the course content amongst themselves when they find an item challenging. He did, however, see some faculty sometimes struggle with using technology, relying on departmental support.

Finally, Professor Miller believes that the virtual environment has allowed faculty to be more engaged in planning and decision-making on campus. Since Zoom makes meetings more accessible, faculty meeting attendance has increased during the pandemic.

Meghan Perdue- Digital Learning Fellow

Meghan was tasked with supporting faculty during the online transition, which included leading workshops on digital instruction. Overall, she found the majority of the faculty was willing and interested in ensuring that the online learning environment was a positive one for students. The foremost issue for most faculty, after resolving technical issues, was determining how they would utilize class time while teaching online. Faculty cannot conduct the class in the same manner they would in a face-to-face classroom, so Meghan worked with them to think more purposefully about how to divide up their class time. “Chunking” the class into discrete time-constrained periods was a new approach that most faculty who haven’t taught online before have since embraced. Meghan also echoed what was raised in other interviews: Often the most helpful support is faculty sharing best practices amongst themselves.

Many faculty members Meghan interacted with likened the shift to online teaching to an actor transitioning from stage to movie acting. In both cases, the professor or actor is performing; however, in a movie or while teaching online, the audience cannot provide real-time feedback. Therefore, faculty feel more pressure to ensure their classes are organized in a way that would “land” the performance.

Additionally, while working with faculty across campus, Meghan found that they embraced the shift to online learning as an opportunity to reevaluate how they teach. After countless semesters of doing something the same way, this sudden shift has caused faculty to look closely at the rationale behind how they craft their courses. Many of the learnings uncovered by MIT echo what is being seen across the country: While higher education will be forever changed due to the pandemic, the shift can unearth positive changes that have been overdue. 

Jeffrey Ravel- Professor of History

Professor Ravel identified that a key to the successful swift transition to remote learning was faculty sharing tips and resources with each other. On faculty Zoom calls, these shared insights enabled members to incorporate practices that had already been proven  effective among their peers.

In addition to sharing learnings, faculty within his department also used the current situation to enhance the topics they cover with students. A professor who teaches the history of capitalism delved into how COVID-19 impacted politics, the political economy, and economics more generally.

The need to moderate expectations was identified by Professor Ravel early in the pandemic as a means to make the sudden upheaval less disruptive to faculty. During a crisis, setting a goal of doing two-thirds of what would normally take place can ensure that faculty can manage the challenging event. Often, the class will surpass that goal. One specific example he shared was a professor who assigned fewer total pages to be read by students while increasing the number of assignments overall, which resulted in increased student engagement.

Additionally, faculty have shifted their assessment models to include more authentic assessments, Professor Ravel noted. Instead of a high-stakes test at the close of the semester, one faculty member assigned a take-home essay featuring the student as a nominee of a major political party requiring a speech that addressed the public health, economic, and political crises of the present day. 

We hope you enjoy these videos and learn from MIT’s experience transitioning into an online environment. To learn more about Michelson Spark Grants, we invite you to visit this page.

Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon and inventor Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson. The Michelson 20MM Foundation is dedicated to supporting and investing in leading organizations, technologies, and initiatives that seek to transform learning and improve access to educational opportunities that lead to a meaningful career. Learn more at www.20mm.org.