Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Chapter 5: Pandemic Learnings

Main content start

Themes have emerged in what instructional innovations worked well during emergency remote instruction and in what challenges persist. In taking stock of those themes, the Stanford community may begin considering how best to move forward from the disruption caused by COVID-19.

Learning 1: Emergency remote instruction marks a shift in Stanford's identity.

The change from brick-and-mortar to virtual classrooms shifted the way that students engage with Stanford cultural traditions. Students no longer gathered in-person in classes and met face-to-face with instructors. Their connection to Stanford was no longer grounded in the beautiful campus and the wonderful climate. First- and second-year undergraduate students missed key parts of their fall 2020 and 2021 new student onboarding experience, including (but not limited to) a loss of oral traditions once passed through informal student networks (e.g., word-of-mouth information about study spaces, student clubs, and library services). Moreover, the view of the residential experience as crucial to the overall Stanford experience was challenged, as many incoming students lived off-campus or at home during this time.  While faculty, staff, and students continued to feel strongly about Stanford’s sense of place — and yearned to return to it — they also experienced a connection to Stanford as a virtual community.

Learning 2: Staff have a new and vital role in shaping instructional innovation and in building new collaborative networks.

The heavily siloed nature of Stanford’s schools, departments, and business units gave way to agile, collaborative partnerships, particularly among university staff. Communities of practice (CoPs) blossomed, Slack channels multiplied, and inter-institutional workshops, conferences, and summits increased as the need to provide enhanced teaching and learning support grew. Previously abandoned knowledge communities (e.g., Stanford Teaching Commons) were revitalized, and educational technology programs were expanded or enhanced as demand grew for technological devices (e.g., iPads and laptops), classroom technology support, and online learning design. Additionally, a new TEACH symposium offered workshops and training on teaching during a pandemic. 

Staff teams worked tirelessly to pivot teaching and learning online in response to an emerging global health crisis and to refine and iterate online instruction as the pandemic wore on. New programs and projects were led by staff, sometimes in totally new areas of work and often in cross-functional groups. Staff groups developed collaborative teams within and beyond Stanford to pool knowledge and resources about emergency remote teaching and learning.

Learning 3: The move to remote education worsened access for many students, though some saw an improvement.

Increased remote instruction benefited many Stanford students, including some students with disabilities and others who prefer virtual communication to in-person communication. However, gaps in access to instructional materials, computer hardware, academic technologies for teaching and learning, adequate study spaces, and connectivity widened based on economic and social circumstances. “Some found [emergency remote instruction] to be helpful, but others found the ecosystem of stress and disruption to really undermine their ability to focus on school,” Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, says. Students from marginalized backgrounds (including those in rural areas) struggled to obtain reliable WiFi and to access learning management systems. New programs to increase access to learning hardware were developed (e.g., the LT&S laptop loaner program and more student peer tech support opportunities), but connectivity challenges may have limited their impact.

Innovative teaching practices developed to augment Stanford instruction during remote learning (such as flipped course design, instructional media libraries, and project-based assessments) hold promise for long-term improvements to teaching and learning, though they are not yet universally embraced, nor are their impacts always measured. Our review suggests that much evaluation of the effectiveness of pedagogical practices — not just of student satisfaction, as is generally measured by processes like course evaluations — has yet to be done. That will be an important part of gauging the impacts of promising pedagogical innovations during remote instruction, especially those innovations that might be integrated into face-to-face instruction. “There should be more assessment of practices,” says Sarah Church, vice provost for undergraduate education and professor of physics, noting that the Center for Teaching and Learning has the expertise required to do such work. 

Learning 4: The faculty-student relationship changed.

Stanford students participated in course design in new and innovative ways as faculty sought input on newly redesigned courses or, in some cases, as faculty invited students to co-design courses based on students’ own learning goals. New support models, established to supplement existing academic technology support on campus (digital ambassadors, CDA+, etc.), leveraged student technology expertise to enable faculty to adapt to remote instruction.

However, already challenging topics in the classroom were made more challenging by the virtual environment, leading instructors to avoid certain topics because of concerns about their  being recorded and having remarks taken out of context. Moreover, a lack of connection to faculty caused the loss of mentoring relationships crucial to students’ continued academic careers.

Learning 5: A culture of empathy grew.

Our interviews indicate that compassion and empathy in the classroom have helped to improve student well-being at Stanford, as well as leading to a stronger culture of mutual respect across the institution. Instructors who took the time to demonstrate empathy (e.g., through flexible assignment deadlines or attendance policies) appear to have improved faculty-student relationships and built positive classroom cultures. Furthermore, faculty and administrators who made space for students of all backgrounds and identities in the design of their instruction and support programs seem to have strengthened trust and helped ensure that student needs were appropriately met.

Such measures may be more necessary than ever. The pandemic has increased the mental strain on a generation of college students already reporting record levels of depression, stress, and anxiety. As a result of the pandemic, Stanford students report increased feelings of social isolation, loss of social structure (e.g., extracurricular activities), and stress from coursework. The university responded by devising and implementing more flexible mental health services (such as Vaden Health Services’ virtual therapy and coaching appointments). Many students used these services, and we anticipate that they will benefit from continued access to these services post-pandemic.

Future considerations

These five takeaways lead to questions that the Stanford community may want to consider in the coming years, regardless of what turns the COVID-19 pandemic may take. They include:

  • How can Stanford continue the culture of academic ingenuity and innovation that shined during the pandemic?
  • 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 having more options of alternative forms of assessment?
  • What should be students’ role in course design?  
  • Is there a need to maintain and grow professional knowledge-sharing networks and online teaching resources such as the Teaching Commons, the Teach Symposium and the Digital Ambassadors program?
  • How can the university ensure that it has the latest and most appropriate educational technology toolkit, both software and hardware?
  • As part of the university’s planning for pandemics and other disasters, what is needed to keep up-to-date preparations specifically for teaching and learning, detailing the steps and measures to transition to and sustain virtual instruction?


Read the full report