Review of Stanford’s pivot to online education

A new review of Stanford’s experience during the first two years of the pandemic reveals that despite the hardships endured by students, faculty, and staff, the university’s pivot to remote education – and the resourcefulness with which it responded – offers valuable lessons for the future.

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Stanford Digital Education

Lisa Anderson and Cindy Berhtram discuss the report, Lessons from Teaching and Learning at Stanford during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review, 2020-21 with colleague Erik Brown

Although many educators view that time as an aberration and welcome the return to pre-pandemic norms, the new 78-page report highlights innovations in teaching and learning that Stanford and other universities may consider adopting as common practice in the coming years. Titled Lessons from Teaching and Learning at Stanford during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review, 2020-21, it was posted online this morning by Stanford Digital Education, a unit of the Provost’s Office.

“This review documents the resilience, creativity, and compassion that blossomed at Stanford in the face of a pandemic that upended our educational practices,” Provost Persis Drell said. “It shows how our community pulled together to ensure we continued to support our educational mission. Now, as the pandemic wanes, we have the chance to chart a new course in digital learning that is guided by the lessons we learned during the pandemic.”

The review, which draws upon interviews with 59 Stanford leaders, faculty, staff, and students, highlights recurring themes and spotlights remarkable stories. It also is informed by analyses of internal Stanford reports and articles by University Communications as well as secondary digital resources, such as recorded campus events and stories in higher education publications.

Lisa J. Anderson and Cynthia Berhtram, both of Stanford Digital Education, led the project and authored the review. They document how the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities and how the pivot to emergency remote education demanded real-time solutions. And they show how Stanford rose to these challenges through creativity and ongoing collaboration. They determined that worthwhile advances in teaching and learning were made during this difficult period, and that these advances could be the basis for lasting improvements if the university recognizes and builds on them.

Some view the teaching that occurred during the pandemic as evidence of the limitations of online learning. Vice Provost for Digital Education Matthew Rascoff questions such thinking in his letter introducing the review. He notes that the authors use the term “emergency remote teaching” throughout the report in order “to draw a critical distinction between what occurred during the pandemic at Stanford and true online learning.”

He explains: “Emergency remote teaching was an urgent response to a global crisis. Well-designed online learning is the product of patient ‘backwards design,’ an intentional, collaborative process that begins with the needs and learning goals of the student. There was no time for such design during the pandemic, but there will be in the future.”

Four chapters deal with key subjects

The review’s analysis divides Stanford’s response to the pandemic in 2020-21 into four chapters: innovations in pedagogy, the changing role of students and staff, the development of professional networks, and a new emphasis on the whole student.

Chapter I details new approaches to teaching that were tried as instructors sought to make their classes more inclusive, with many becoming more sophisticated in their use of technologies such as the video conferencing platform Zoom and the learning management system Canvas. Breakout rooms, back-channel chats, and online office hours became commonplace. The shift to remote education caused instructors to experiment with splitting class lessons into smaller, more digestible chunks; creating courses that could work for both face-to-face and online audiences; using scaffolded formative assessments in place of one high-stakes final exam, and much more. “Every faculty member’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of remote teaching,” Jim Plummer, the John M. Fluke Professor of Electrical Engineering, told the review’s authors. “This is a huge opportunity for Stanford and other universities.”

Chapter II describes how the switch to online instruction led staff and students to shoulder new responsibilities. New student jobs such as digital ambassadors and course development assistants were created to support faculty in making the most of the virtual experience. Staff units, including teaching and learning teams and educational technology support teams, developed new models to meet increased demand for their services. Traditional silos were broached as teams became more cross functional. “Staff were empowered to think creatively about how to respond to an extraordinary situation,” Helen Chu, senior director of learning spaces in Learning Technologies and Spaces, said in an interview for the report.

Chapter III discusses the new networks that emerged to deal with the “infodemic” that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. The Stanford community had to make sense of a tsunami of information about remote teaching and learning. New Slack channels, new symposiums and workshops, new online clearinghouses, and new communities of practices, or CoPs, were established to help guide people through it. For instance, the Teaching Commons website, which had been defunct, was revived to provide instructors with curated content to answer a variety of questions. “It became this growing ecosystem, turning the ‘untamed jungles’ of Stanford into a garden,” Kenji Ikemoto, an academic technology specialist, explained to Stanford Digital Education researchers.

Chapter IV covers the increased awareness that student well-being is critical for learning. This appreciation for the “whole student” arose from seeing how the pandemic’s effects on students’ inequitable access to resources, as well as its impact overall on mental health, led to difficulties in academic performance. Stanford responded with new programs and materials at Vaden Health Services. Resources to encourage equity and inclusion proliferated. Guides were available to faculty to help them lead discussions on sensitive subjects. Many adopted for the first time classroom practices such as “temperature checks” and “share spaces” to enable instructors to see how students were feeling. “I think of it as a huge permission slip to everybody on campus to care and empathize, and to bring their humanity forward in every interaction with students,” Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost of student affairs, said in an interview. “We need to build a culture around that.”

Questions for the future

The review offers “lessons learned” in its final chapter, but it does not issue recommendations. Instead, it suggests that the Stanford community consider a series of questions in the coming months, including:

  • How do we provide digital education opportunities that enhance equity and access for students?
  • Under what circumstances should faculty and academic instructors be able to teach with flexibility, using such instructional modalities as fully online, hybrid, or flipped instruction?
  • Should students be afforded alternatives to attending classes in-person and have more options of alternative forms of assessment?

The review provides vital context for answering these and other questions, though it offers only a sampling of views. The authors make no claim to its being comprehensive and underscore the need for further input. The report is described as a “beginning.”

In the coming months, members of the Stanford community are encouraged to read the review and its website, offer comments and join the effort to build upon this work.

“We take seriously the call to learn from the pandemic teaching and learning experience, and this review is an important step in that direction,” Rascoff said. “We hope that by discussing its implications we can collectively map a promising future of innovation in teaching, learning, and digital education at Stanford.”

At the request of Provost Drell, Stanford Digital Education will be reaching across campus during the coming academic year to help the university devise a new university-wide digital strategy. The team will gather input from different units to understand their priorities and to see how the university could best support them.

“I am confident that we can continue Stanford’s history of finding new and better ways to provide outstanding education that extends beyond the physical boundaries of our campus,” the provost said.

Review of Stanford’s pivot to online education