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A Letter from Vice Provost Matthew Rascoff

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Dear Colleagues,

“Could Covid lead to progress?” This question was posed by the New York Times Magazine as the title of its 2021 issue on technology and design. Yet, while there were articles on biology, urbanism, and public health, there was nothing on education. Has the experience of pandemic teaching and learning over the past two years already been normalized? Or do we assume that all the effects of the pandemic on teaching and learning were negative, and therefore there is no educational progress to be found? 

Matthew Rascoff
Matthew Rascoff

Now, with more than two years of perspective since the initial response, it is clear that many of the educational impacts of the pandemic were negative — but not all. With this review we attempt to document what occurred in education at Stanford during this period and to begin identifying which innovations may be worth preserving and enhancing for the long term. 

We use the term “emergency remote teaching” to draw a critical distinction between what occurred during the pandemic at Stanford and true online learning. 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. As we emerge from the pandemic, the skills and confidence that instructors developed for emergency remote teaching can be translated to more intentionally designed learning experiences.

Stanford Digital Education, which Provost Persis Drell launched in 2021, aims to support that translation. We seek to unite Stanford’s human and technological capabilities to expand equity and access to educational opportunities. Our effort is rooted in empathetic listening, analysis, and evidence-based practices. Consistent with those values, this review offers a “first draft” of the history of teaching and learning during the pandemic at Stanford and aims to recognize the resilience and responsiveness of the Stanford community, including the leaders who executed the astounding pivot to remote learning with unprecedented speed; the faculty and staff who devised new ways of organizing and teaching courses; and the students who remained committed to learning amid terrifying circumstances. This review offers a variety of perspectives on the impact of different measures, while enhancing our understanding of the inequities and other challenges made more apparent by the pandemic. 

Our review is neither the first nor will it be the last to address the subject of distance learning at Stanford, a university that has been at the forefront of education innovation for decades. As early as 1969 the university was broadcasting courses on television microwave channels, and in the 1990s it was a leader in using the internet for teaching and learning outside the traditional classroom. This pioneering drive achieved a new milestone in 2011, when several professors offered some of the first Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, reaching hundreds of thousands of students worldwide. That work, and Stanford’s efforts to support it, laid the groundwork for a decade of growth in education technologies, platforms, and startups. 

The pandemic presents Stanford with a fresh opportunity to continue its progress in online education. In May 2020, shortly after the move to emergency remote teaching, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne convened a task force, the Long-Term Recovery Team, to produce a report that considers what new opportunities may have arisen because of the pandemic. Issued in November 2020, the report recommendations include “building a more adaptive and far-reaching online Stanford that will help us carry out the university’s mission more effectively through the pandemic and beyond ...” 

It adds: “We are engaged in a massive experiment in virtual teaching and learning. Many faculty are trying new ways to engage students and structure classes. There is an exciting opportunity to capture this learning, share findings, and improve our teaching practices. Work along these lines is already going on in the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Graduate School of Education, the GSB’s Teaching and Learning Hub, and elsewhere. We recommend a systematic assessment as we emerge from the pandemic that might also look outward to other institutions.”

We take seriously the call to learn from the pandemic teaching and learning experience. While abating somewhat, the COVID-19 crisis persists, and education continues to evolve and adapt. We need now to document and synthesize the early lessons. This review is not exhaustive. It offers a glimpse into the lives of faculty, staff, and students during the pandemic’s first two years. We must continue to pay attention to all our community’s voices, especially the quieter ones, through continued listening and learning.

This paper is a beginning. Over the coming months Stanford Digital Education will share this review with the Stanford community. We hope to discuss its implications in forums that enable us to collectively map a more positive and hopeful future of innovation in teaching and learning that builds on this work. We welcome comments at


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Matthew Rascoff
Vice Provost for Digital Education

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