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Educause ’22: Stanford Reflects on 2 Years of Remote Learning

Educators from Stanford University shared lessons from their campus’ overall experiences with remote learning, including student struggles and academic innovations, at the virtual Educause Annual Conference last week.

Screenshot of Lisa Anderson, associate director of educational partnerships, and Cynthia Berhtram, associate director of project management, both from Stanford, sitting and speaking.
From left, Stanford University’s Lisa Anderson, associate director of educational partnerships, and Cynthia Berhtram, associate director of project management, speak in a panel Nov. 2 during the Educause Annual Conference.
Screenshot by Brandon Paykamian
Noting a plethora of technical and academic challenges faced by students and faculty during the shift to remote learning, researchers at Stanford University released a study last month outlining the campus community’s experiences with digital courses during COVID-19, as well as lessons moving forward. It found polarized reactions among students, and for faculty, that new obstacles required some creativity and collaboration.

The report, titled Lessons from Teaching and Learning at Stanford During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Review, 2020-21, was the topic of a discussion last week at the virtual Educause Annual Conference by co-authors Lisa Anderson, associate director of educational partnerships at Stanford University, and Cynthia Berhtram, the university’s associate director of project management.

According to Anderson and Berhtram, the report draws from interviews with 59 campus community members, including faculty, staff and students, as well as university reports, articles released by the university’s communications office and several news reports, among other sources. It focuses on “emergency” remote teaching, spanning from March 2020 to the fall of 2021, where Berhtram said experiences appeared to vary widely.

“We’re really in a unique moment right now at Stanford and across higher education and education more broadly where we can turn the disruption of the pandemic into transformation of education. One of the ways we thought to do that was through talking to people across campus and reflecting together on what worked during the pandemic, and what innovations we could carry forward,” Berhtram said of the report.

“The only thing universal that we found in the student experience was that it was very polarized. Some students really thrived in the online learning environment, whereas others had some struggles remaining engaged and remaining focused on their learning,” Berhtram said, noting the role of challenges such as the digital divide for some virtual learners. “We heard a lot about student isolation and anxiety as factors in that during emergency remote instruction.”

As described in a university announcement about the study, the report is divided into chapters about innovations in pedagogy, the changing roles of students and staff, the development of professional networks and a “new emphasis on the whole student.” Anderson said the pandemic challenged the university to take more innovative approaches to maintaining student engagement and participation — a major challenge across higher education during the pandemic and in remote courses. Noting that online instruction moved educators and students to take on new responsibilities, the university witnessed the emergence of new student roles like “digital ambassador” and course development assistants, created to support faculty in adapting to the virtual learning experience.

Stanford’s Senior Director of Learning Spaces Helen Chu said in an interview for the report that professors and staff were encouraged to think creatively about how to respond to the challenges of online learning.

“At the School of Engineering, we learned of cases where students were asked to help co-design collective course outcomes,” Anderson noted of programs that emerged. “We [also] learned of a program called Digital Ambassadors, which is run through the Graduate School of Education, and also of the Course Design Assistant program, which is a product of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. And these two programs are opportunities for students to actually work in a more formal technology setting earning money for helping faculty with course design elements, and this was a great opportunity for students to get more involved with classroom learning.”

Among other offerings, the university provided symposiums and workshops to assist those struggling to adapt to the change as well as a revamped Teaching Commons website, which provides instructors with digital content to help guide virtual course lessons. Noting the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health, the university also encouraged “temperature checks” to check up on students and build a culture of empathy, among other strategies to bolster student well-being.

“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 ... We need to build a culture around that,” Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost of student affairs, said of these approaches in an interview.

Rather than specific recommendations, the report offers questions for faculty, staff, administrators and students to carefully consider in the coming months, such as how to best approach providing educational opportunities that enhance equity and access for students, and whether students should be afforded alternatives to in-person courses and alternative forms of assessment in the future.

According to the announcement, the university plans to gather input from others across the campus community during the coming academic year to contribute to a new university-wide digital strategy, using input from the campus community “to understand their priorities and to see how the university could best support them.”

Academic Technology Specialist Kenji Ikemoto, working with Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said one of the takeaways from Stanford’s virtual learning experience was about teamwork.

“I think a lesson that we learned during the pandemic is that teaching effectively requires a village,” he said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.