President's Letter

Emergency remote teaching

Teaching in a pandemic reinforces our commitment to education.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

The Yale Alumni Magazine publishes a letter from President Peter Salovey ’86PhD in every issue. In this letter, he discusses how Yale has handled online teaching since the novel coronavirus forced the university to minimize its operations, and how online teaching can aid in education. View full image

Dear Friends,
Since I announced last March that Yale would move classes online for the last part of the spring semester, many members of our community—including some of you—have asked me about maintaining educational continuity with emergency remote teaching. I intentionally use this term to distinguish our response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the progress Yale and universities around the world have made in online education under normal circumstances.

During my inauguration in 2013, I spoke about pioneering new frontiers in teaching while staying true to our pedagogical traditions. I wanted Yale to explore using online modalities that incorporated research-based practices to guide teaching in classrooms, online classes, and “flipped” in-person courses. My goal was not to replace traditional classroom teaching at all but, rather, to augment it and extend the reach of our faculty. At the time, I had no idea that we would need such methods to help us get through a global health crisis.

Thinking back to the years when I taught undergraduate and graduate courses, I know I would have preferred at least a few months to redesign my syllabus if I’d had to move any of them online. However, we did not have that kind of time in the spring of 2020. Midway through the semester, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and our faculty had less than two weeks to transition their on-campus courses to be taught remotely.

In many ways, Yale was well prepared for this situation because the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning has been providing innovative educational tools and resources for faculty and students across campus since 2014. The center integrates our teaching, tutoring, writing, and technology-enabled learning programs that formerly were distributed across the university. Locating this wealth of expertise in one organization allowed us to implement a phased support model quickly that provided faculty members with the information they needed about teaching remotely as the semester progressed.

Our experiences from six weeks of emergency remote teaching reinforced two ideas I highlighted during my inaugural address: online platforms can amplify the teaching of our faculty, and online courses can help us find new ways to stimulate learning on campus.

Online platforms can amplify the teaching of our faculty
When I taught Psych 110: Introduction to Psychology, I was able to connect with hundreds of students during each lecture, but I didn’t have the option of reaching a larger audience through a digital platform. At the time, it didn’t seem like much of a loss. But in recent months, I have seen the power of technology in sharing widely the teaching of our faculty.

Since March 1, about two million learners around the world have enrolled in one of Yale’s free courses on Coursera, The Science of Well-Being with Professor of Psychology Laurie Santos, while sheltering at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Of course, no one will confuse enrolling in a free class with earning a four-year Yale undergraduate degree. But amplifying the teaching of Yale’s faculty members can inform and inspire more people in more places—helping us to share light and truth with the world.

Putting additional Yale courses online has the potential to allow broad access to our educational programs. For undergraduate arts, humanities, social science, and science courses, this is mostly enrichment for high school students, young scholars at other universities, or lifelong learners across the country and the world. For professional and technical education, it can deliver a lot of what an in-person degree offers. Once this pandemic is over, I look forward to exploring ways to expand our online offerings.

Online courses can help us find new ways to stimulate learning on campus
As I worked with colleagues on transitioning the campus to emergency remote teaching, I often thought back to all the hours I spent in classrooms. All my best moments of teaching involved active learning, where students and I engaged with the course material through lively discussions and asked one another questions about what remained to be discovered. I wondered how something similar could be achieved online, especially for large courses. Unsurprisingly, faculty members tackled this challenge with creativity, expertise, and hard work. Their efforts not only maintained Yale’s core mission of education, but also gave us ideas for improving teaching on campus once the students return.

For example, when Mark Mooseker (Ross Granville Harrison Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology) and Samantha Lin (Lecturer in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology) contemplated how they would teach 220 students online for BIOL 102: Principles of Cell Biology, they realized that they had to make significant modifications to their original plans. They are known for being able to deliver complex information in an engaging, light-hearted way. Students blow whistles to ask questions, so a chorus of “fweets” can alert Professor Mooseker that he has said something confusing even when he’s turned away from them to write on the whiteboard. And about one-third of each lecture is devoted to interactions within the classroom.

They couldn’t replicate these types of engagement through Zoom. So, instead of delivering their preplanned 75-minute lectures, they recorded a greater number of 15- to 30-minute lectures. This helped students stay focused even without in-person activities. The teaching team also held frequent virtual meetings with students to work through problem sets and discuss scientific papers. And they assessed the students’ performances weekly to ensure everyone was keeping up. Although nothing could replace the in-person experience of the course, their students benefited from their efforts and, appropriately, created a video to thank them.

Like many faculty members on campus, Professor Mooseker and Dr. Lin are rethinking their approach to classroom teaching based on their experiences online last semester. Dr. Lin realized that she could use technology to make herself more available to her students; she envisions holding both in-person and online office hours in the future. Professor Mooseker noticed students engaged more with the coursework and participated further in problem solving with weekly assessments. He plans to explore reducing the use of cumulative tests in favor of more frequent examinations once he can teach in person again.  

When I look at what we were able to achieve with emergency remote teaching, I am reminded of Kingman Brewster’s inaugural address over a half-century ago. He said, “If modern technology fulfills its promise, we are on the threshold of a revolution. . . . Lectures can be taped and stored and selected for viewing on demand. . . . It behooves us to take the lead in adapting our ways to any arrangement which will make our resources publicly available as long as it does not dilute, distort, or distract us from our first mission.”

Even as we recognize the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can stimulate pedagogical change, while advancing our mission to prepare the next generation of leaders and thinkers. This includes embracing technology as a force for amplifying the teaching of our faculty and stimulating learning on campus. Doing so will not only make Yale and our students more resilient for the challenges ahead but will also strengthen the element that distinguishes Yale among leading global research universities: our commitment to the centrality of our educational mission.

With best wishes for your health and safety,

Peter Salovey ’86PhD
Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology

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