With Virtual Education, Less Might Be More


Last week, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay sent an email to faculty and staff with an update on how the school is planning for the spring semester. “Early indicators of what the remote academic experience this fall has been like are favorable,” she wrote. According to surveys administered by FAS, students are engaged with their instructors, “a factor identified as essential to successful remote learning.”

That would seem like a particularly rosy picture of what has been a difficult semester to say the least.

Earlier this month, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana said that the College’s public health measures, meant to contain the spread of COVID-19, were successful enough to raise the possibility of inviting more students back for the spring. While five graduate schools have already announced plans to remain virtual through the spring, and instruction will continue online regardless of how many students are invited to live on campus, this announcement raises questions about what our spring will look like.

Last week, Khurana and Gay began to answer some of those questions: The spring class schedule will run as normal, from January 25 to April 28, though spring break will be replaced by five intermittent “wellness days.”


As the administration continues to plan for the spring, we encourage them to take a more nuanced look at what virtual education has really meant for students. The Pulse survey would seem not to paint a complete picture. Zoom fatigue is a real and pressing concern — and especially at this midpoint of the semester, the exhaustion of long days of hopping in and out of Zoom rooms, staring at the empty waiting rooms, sighing through the glitches, lags, and freezes is taking its toll.

Indeed, there’s something to be said, moving forward, for less Zoom, not more. Instead of raising the requirements of a Harvard education — more hours of required engagement with all the additional obligations that come with those hours — the College should consider how it could maintain the quality of its education with a more minimalist approach.

We urge the College to reconsider its initial approach of setting high online time requirements — 8 to 12 hours of engagement per course per week — and to more carefully consider how those time demands may actually make learning more burdensome, a series of virtual hoops to jump through. Smaller, shorter courses with a higher ratio of independent work, for example, may, at least for some students, be a healthier online learning style.

How will the University accommodate the needs of students to be away from their screens in the material reality of their lives? How will it acknowledge that living online is itself quite taxing? Creating more flexible and downsized online requirements may be one important part of that work for the coming term.

While that might nominally and quantitatively reduce engagement (as tracked by a survey), it may in fact improve the quality of that engagement and allow students to engage on their own terms.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.