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Chapter 1: Innovative Pedagogy

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Pandemic emergency teaching presented substantial challenges to instructors, but it also generated opportunities for significant transformation of students’ remote learning experiences. Many curricular practices at Stanford were reshaped to promote active, interactive, and experiential education — including more flexible classroom assessments and opportunities for flipped learning.

A masked student attending class outdoors

Excerpt from Chapter 1

Innovation from disruption

In spring 2020, the rapid emergency shift to remote learning forced a reliance on an existing technology toolkit — one that was not necessarily the best fit for all instruction. In particular, Stanford’s existing licenses with Zoom and Canvas, Stanford’s learning management system, suddenly became the means by which Stanford conducted its core educational mission. While Canvas (owned by the educational technology company Instructure) had largely been a means of supplementing classroom learning prior to the pandemic and Zoom had rarely been used for instruction, these became the foundation of student learning and connection to the campus community. This well-established and stable technology toolkit enabled Stanford to pivot quickly to provide the teaching and learning support needed for emergency remote instruction to function — and ultimately to evolve. 

While Zoom had not been used as a classroom tool, Stanford already had extensive familiarity with the technology. For one thing, its Redwood City campus, which opened in 2019 to house many university departments and services, has relied on Zoom as a business tool to bridge the seven-mile distance between its faculty and staff and the main campus. What’s more, because of Stanford’s location in Silicon Valley, it had a strong connection with the company based in nearby San Jose before the pandemic began. “A number of peer universities were struggling with bandwidth issues, infrastructure scaling, and with volume. We already had this highly scalable infrastructure with Zoom and, furthermore, a very tight relationship with their CEO and founder,” says Steve Gallagher, Stanford’s chief information officer.

The suddenly more prominent role of Zoom and Canvas when emergency remote education began did raise concerns among some faculty and staff. It meant that Stanford’s teaching, learning, and work were conducted in platforms developed by private, for-profit companies whose products were designed to accommodate a wide range of customer needs. Zoom, in particular, is a business meeting tool not designed with education in mind. 

“The pandemic amplified all the gaps that were already there, and a commercial vendor may not prioritize what you think is important,” says Christine Doherty, lead user support specialist in Learning Technologies and Spaces. Doherty cites challenges supporting the needs of both very large lectures and small graduate seminars using the same learning management system, Canvas. She also highlighted the difficulty of relying on vendors who may experience unexpected downtime or change functionality of their products without warning. “When something fails miserably in the middle of a final exam — you can’t take that back. It’s like ruining someone’s wedding day,” Doherty says of the erosion of trust such problems can cause. 

“When something fails miserably in the middle of a final exam — you can’t take that back. It’s like ruining someone’s wedding day.”

Christine Doherty, lead user support specialist in Learning Technologies and Spaces

But the university was making the transition at warp speed, and it had neither time to seek other options nor time to plan how faculty and staff could thoughtfully apply the new technology to learning. Instructors quickly needed to master Zoom and Canvas. This timeline left instructors little choice initially to do much else besides try to replicate their face-to-face courses on Zoom.

In the first wave of courses in response to the pandemic, faculty delivered the same lectures virtually that they would have in the classroom. While the problems with this approach soon became apparent, there was nonetheless an upside. Instructors’ ability to use this new technology and adapt it to instructional practices allowed teaching and learning to continue without interruption. “Moving online was scary for us as faculty,” Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil, John Roberts Hale Director of Stanford Language Center and professor of German studies, says. “I was certain it was not going to work. I got over that in about 10 days.”

Beth Seltzer, who was then an academic technology specialist with Stanford Introductory Studies (SIS), housed in the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, noticed in her work supporting instructors that the sudden shift to teaching remotely leveled the playing field for instructors. A seasoned faculty member told her that teaching in this new modality “feels like teaching the first class you taught in grad school,” placing new instructors and tenured faculty with 50 years of experience in the same situation: both had to rebuild courses from the ground up to teach them remotely. 

From this newly leveled playing field, innovative learning designs emerged and promising pedagogical practices came into greater focus. As the pandemic wore on, instructors became all too aware of students’ Zoom fatigue and understood that they had to design activities that would promote learning without exhausting students from watching lectures on their laptops. As instructors became more confident in their ability to use Zoom for teaching, they began to seize the opportunity to take different approaches to their courses. “Instructors moved from replicating face-to-face course activities 1:1 to online — they learned how to adapt,” says Alex Popke, a senior undergraduate and course development assistant. 

Instructors used the disruption as an opportunity to rethink their course designs from the ground up. “We’ve all been doing this for a long time, and you get in some habits. It was kind of refreshing to just start over, and it didn’t take as long as I thought,” said Graham Weaver, lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business, in a fall 2021 faculty panel. “I’m going to bring that thinking back into the classroom as well.”

“We’ve all been doing this for a long time, and you get in some habits. It was kind of refreshing to just start over, and it didn’t take as long as I thought.”

Graham Weaver, lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business

Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, Cheriton Family Professor and professor of physics and of education, and two colleagues reached similar conclusions about the evolution of teaching during the pandemic in a book chapter comparing how Stanford and Stockholm University responded to the crisis.

They wrote: “Within departments, there have been far more widespread and extensive discussions about teaching than ever happened before. Although these initially focused on the basic use of the technology, they have evolved into more extensive discussions of teaching, although more rigorous, evidence-based discussions are still needed.

“Another interesting outcome is the seemingly hierarchical scale of actions teachers took when faced with the new teaching situation. The first step was to learn to handle the technology so that it would be possible to transfer teaching online. The next step was to consider and reflect upon challenges and opportunities with the new environment in terms of pedagogical value. This was clear both at Stockholm and Stanford University. From discussions between academics and academics and managers that we have taken part in, it seems the discussions have moved on from just doing teaching online to how to do it well.”

In turn, students noted that they felt more engaged in courses with instructors who responded with creativity in their pandemic course designs. The instructors who were flexible, rethought course assessments, and adapted course materials and their delivery to meet students’ needs may well have helped students to cope better with life during the pandemic and may have helped them to continue learning, perhaps in some instances providing a better learning experience than they would have had in a face-to-face class, according to several of the interviews with faculty and staff.

The university is committed to making its online education capacity stronger still, but it remains to be decided how to pursue that aim. What we have learned is that when faced with a fundamental change to the way the Stanford community teaches and learns, an initially reactive, urgent response gradually provided space for innovative and promising practices to emerge...

More voices from Chapter 1

"When you have to put everything on Canvas, you have to be more organized. You have to design your course more thoughtfully.”
Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil, John Roberts Hale Director of Stanford Language Center

“Zoom seemed to bring more students into the conversation. I could see them all, while in a classroom of 40 it’s kind of hard to keep your eye on everybody.”
Charles Prober, founding executive director of the Stanford Center for Health Education and professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine

"Breaking things up into smaller chunks, adding a lot of variety, and giving students as many opportunities to participate in different ways has become all the more important.”
Christine Min Wotipka, associate professor of education at the Graduate School of Education

“It’s hard for the students — online learning during a pandemic is not what they signed up for.”
Hanno Lustig, professor of finance at the Graduate School of Business

"It was the most I've ever interacted with parents, and it was really meaningful to the parents, clearly, and to the parent-student relationship.”
Markus Covert, professor of bioengineering, on cooking labs in his Science of Haute Cuisine course