The suddenly remote semester | MIT Technology Review

Their immediate worry was the 21 classes with 150 or more students. “We thought if we replaced the very largest lectures with something online, we could run until spring break and figure out at spring break what to do next,” Rajagopal says. On Sunday, that he and Waitz told the faculty teaching those classes that they’d have until Tuesday, March 10, to modify to an online format. Some pushed back, saying that was too quickly. 

But that same day, Blake called Waitz to tell him that public health experts were now recommending social distancing. So he shifted the ACWG’s focus. Instead of arranging a range of scenarios, they’d need certainly to prepare to execute one that was probably: going remote. “On Monday, it was clear we were only planning for one scenario: we were going to empty out the campus,” that he says. “It was just a question of when.” 

That Monday, March 9, Waitz instituted a daily 8 a.m. Zoom call with the initial ACWG team along with all MIT deans and department heads, many faculty committee chairs and associate department heads, and key staff members—about 130 people in most. “We may be advising students to go home and stay home,” Waitz announced on the first call. “It’s my sincere hope we get to spring break, but I don’t know if that will occur.” 

By Monday night, it was clear it wouldn’t. At 7:45 on Tuesday morning, MIT made the call to finish classes on Friday the 13th and send undergrads home for the rest of the semester. During that morning’s call, Stuopis compared MIT’s dorms—nine of which do have more than 250 students—to cruise lines. Emptying them would reduce the density of men and women on campus to allow social distancing. (Grad students could remain, but those who could leave campus and work remotely will be encouraged to do this.) “We think this is the best way to preserve the health of every member of the community,” she said.

Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, leads the Academic Continuity Working Group.


The decision will be announced later that day, leaving many questions to answer meanwhile. “There were a zillion implications,” Waitz says. He likens it to a technical problem that takes many steps—even though you know the answer first. “We told them the answer: Okay, we’re going to move everyone off campus; we’re gonna end classes a week early. But there were 20 steps to solve that problem that we hadn’t yet solved,” that he says. They had to sort out what the decision designed for things like school funding, housing, and dining, and how to accommodate students who couldn’t safely return home. “We spent the afternoon trying to solve the problem, which really is a hard one, so we’re able to write it down and acquire [the details] out to people,” that he says. 

One remarkable decision was that along with refunding housing and dining fees for the remainder of the semester, the Institute would convert the school funding funds that will have covered housing and dining in to cash payments that went directly to the students themselves. Waitz says that whilst it might have seemed odd to refund people money they’d not paid, he and Stuart Schmill ’86, dean of admissions and student financial services, and Chancellor Cindy Barnhart, SM ’86, PhD ’88, realized that those students’ families might need the funds, given the economic upheaval due to covid-19. “It was really an MIT thing to do,” Waitz says, calling it “a decision MIT should be proud of.” 

“On Monday, it was clear we were only planning for one scenario: we were going to empty out the campus. It was just a question of when.”

By late afternoon on Tuesday, students had received the email from President L. Rafael Reif saying Friday would be the last day of on-campus classes. Undergraduates were to leave by these Tuesday—and couldn’t come back after spring break. The remaining portion of the semester will be taught on line. 

As the news sank in, several students gathered in Killian Court for an epic session of cathartic screaming. As some body hoisted a Purell dispenser in the air, dark clouds scudded overhead, mirroring the general mood. The semester would be finished from a large number of bedrooms scattered around the globe, perhaps not in the company of friends down the hall or fellow tacklers of impossible p-sets. “IHTFP” may have been carved into their brass rats, but no one wished to spend other semester anyplace else. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a pandemic. Students packed up their rooms and said their goodbyes between their remaining classes as staff, faculty advisors, heads of houses, and GRAs worked tirelessly to simply help them transfer.

By Thursday how many covid-19 cases in greater Boston had doubled and Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. All MIT employees who could do so were asked to begin with working at home. 

Waitz’s team realized that allowing students to stay until Tuesday was too risky. Suzy Nelson, dean for student life, said she could accelerate the plan to go them off campus, and Reif authorized the strategy at 6 p.m. Classes will be canceled on Friday; MIT would pay to store students’ boxed-up items and subsidize travel expenses to simply help them leave by Sunday night. As one ACWG-led group crafted a message to students to mention this, the others were creating a form for students to submit expenses and a ticket system to capture all requests. At 10:30 that night, they sent the announcement with a web link to the shape in an MIT advisory alert. “We didn’t have positive cases, but people needed to leave, not hang out for five days and say goodbye to campus,” Waitz says. 

On Friday the 13th, all graduate students in a position to conduct their research remotely were asked to start this. On the 15th, PIs were asked to reduce on-campus research to achieve 10 to 20% of normal lab density by the 20th. This meant shifting to remote work whenever feasible and allowing only important research to keep on campus, such as lab work that will result in significant data and sample loss if discontinued,  work to maintain critical equipment and safe standby mode in labs, and covid-19 work that could address the current crisis.   

Within per day or two, campus largely emptied out. All that remained were essential staff and about 200 undergrads who cannot return home, some 1,300 grad students, and 500 partners, spouses, and children. In the span of per week, MIT went from deciding to move large lectures on line to scaling back research and sending undergraduates plus some 10,000 staff members home. 

“It felt like we’d decide something one day, and the next day realize it was insufficient. And then your next day, recognize that that wasn’t enough,” Waitz says. “Having people gone protected the safety of the MIT community and the community around us.”   

“Two-thirds is okay”

The early begin to spring break gave faculty two weeks to plan for the suddenly remote semester. 

With 1,251 classes all going online, beefing up the technical infrastructure was critical. Within days, Mark Silis, president for information systems and technology (IS&T), worked with his team to negotiate campus-wide licenses for Zoom, Slack, and several academic tools. They also boosted Dropbox allocations for file storage and worked with the Division of Student Life to get loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots to students who needed them.

Meanwhile, chemistry professor and faculty chair Rick Danheiser had recognized the requirement to rethink MIT’s grading policies. Not all students will be in surroundings conducive to learning. And faculty will be conducting classes from home, many teaching on line for the very first time with short amount of time to prepare. Some would be juggling those duties with parenting responsibilities. Danheiser’s team figured it would be impossible to assign letter grades fairly beneath the circumstances. The Institute became one of the first schools to mandate universal pass/no record grading for the semester (Columbia, Harvard, and others would soon follow). “It’s important that we focus more than ever on learning than grading, striving to maintain classic rigor while worrying less about grades,” Danheiser explained in a virtual MIT town hall meeting on April 7. “We have to fundamentally trust in the motivation of our students.” 

But faculty still had a need to figure out how to teach classes remotely. MIT pioneered OpenCourseWare in 2002 and launched the MITx on line learning platform in 2012, but however, only about 20% of MIT faculty are suffering from courses for MITx, in accordance with Rajagopal. “There are places at MIT where people have thought a lot about how to teach online really well,” he says. “But most of the 1,000 faculty had never thought about it—and had to do it in two weeks.”

It wouldn’t have now been possible to generate high-end video for all 1,251 classes. Departments would decide on their particular methods, and faculty may need to improvise. Waitz advised a “pen knife and book of matches” approach—for example, taking photos of lecture notes with a phone and sending them to students. 

On March 11, his last day on campus, Rajagopal created a video in which that he set expectations and offered advice to faculty. He told them that replicating their classes online at 100% with just fourteen days to prepare was unrealistic—everyone would need to arrive at their particular version of what that he called “two-thirds is okay.” For many, that might mean ditching the original lecture. 

Krishna Rajagopal, dean of digital learning, says on line teaching requires rethinking learning goals.


While long lectures could work well face-to-face, watching a 50-minute lecture over Zoom can be lethal. Rajagopal says it’s easier to break on line lessons in to seven- to 10-minute chunks, whether they’re delivered live or posted for students to view any time. “Nobody can pay attention longer than that,” that he says. And in live sessions, it’s important to mix in items that actively engage the students, such as breakout sessions or polls they could answer by holding up their fingers.   

Sheryl Barnes, Open Learning’s director of residential education, and Janet Rankin, director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, ran webinars on remote teaching and pulled together a “Teach Remote” internet site of curated resources. (They also created a crowdsourced site letting anyone post best practices, such as for example tips for using Zoom with low bandwidth, and yet another curated internet site of remote-learning resources for students.) 

MIT’s Digital Learning Lab (DLL) fellows, who help faculty members develop classes for MITx, also jumped in to simply help. The afternoon the decision to go remote was being finalized, Meghan Perdue, the DLL fellow for the School of the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), developed a two-hour crash course to help faculty shift their classes online. She then proceeded to give 15 workshops to SHASS departments in eight days, followed closely by a week of three to four small-group training sessions per day. She also shared her materials with DLL fellows elsewhere on campus so they really could offer similar workshops.

“You might think the absence of the physical campus would make you feel the campus is important. But what’s important is the people in it.”

Faculty got creative. Several departments took benefit of the fact that grad students were allowed to stick to campus following the undergrads left. Gloria Choi, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, sent TAs into the lab to do other semester’s experiments and collect data for the undergrad class 9.12 (Experimental Molecular Neurobiology). The TAs then scoured YouTube for videos of all of these classic experiments. When classes resumed, the undergrads were able to do their labs virtually by watching the videos and using the raw data gathered by the grad students to do analysis and write lab reports. Likewise, some course teams in chemical engineering captured video footage of TAs doing experiments. And others, like senior lecturer Lodovica Illari, had already developed virtual lab tools. While students in her 12.307 (Weather and Climate Laboratory) class normally do weather simulation experiments in the lab to raised understand the idea behind them, she was able to employ virtual weather visualization tools she and EAPS professor John Marshall and research scientist Bill McKenna had created for larger classes that rely on demos. 

Some faculty who use blackboards extensively wished to keep doing their lectures in empty halls. Barnes’s team supported that until campus access became limited, and just a few professors were granted permission. “Some of those classes involve really long equations,” Barnes explains. Those would be hard to fit in a screen: as she put it, “There’s no substitute for eight wide blackboards.” 

Others found ways to adapt at home. For his class in feedback system design, electrical engineering and computer science professor Jacob White created a makeshift lecture hall. He can scrawl on a whiteboard, levitate magnets, and annotate graphs from a live demo of an averagely unstable system as students watch and get questions via chat.

Unexpected benefits

At the very first 8 a.m. meeting after classes resumed on line on March 30, the discussion about how exactly it was going wasn’t about system crashes or technical glitches. “All the IT worked,” says Rajagopal. “Instead, we had a 10-minute debate about pedagogy and good teaching practices.” And that same week, over 500 volunteer staff and faculty “success coaches,” who’d been recruited in only a matter of days, began weekly check-in meetings with undergrads to supply support. 

The remote half of the semester unmasked some unexpected benefits of on line learning. Rajagopal mentions one lecture class normally held in 26-100, in which nobody ever raised a hand to ask a question. But students started utilizing the chat feature in Zoom for just that purpose. A TA began observing the chat for questions and interrupting to allow the professor explain things more clearly. That doesn’t mean classes should use Zoom on campus, says Rajagopal, “but it does mean that if you’re lecturing in 26-100, you’d better find a way to take questions.” 

Barnes says some professors figured live lectures aren’t always the best utilization of the time faculty and students spend together. Assigning recorded lectures in front of class allows more active engagement with students during class. “Mostly people don’t learn by listening,” she says, adding that giving students opportunities to practice the material and offering specific feedback give you the richest learning experience.

“You might think the absence of the physical campus would make you feel the physical campus is important,” says Waitz. “But really it’s the opposite. You realize what’s important is the people who are in it.” 

So because the spring semester wound down on laptops around the world, Waitz co-led a team arranging a range of fall scenarios, from bringing everybody back on campus (unlikely) to staying fully on line (which nobody wants)—and a few in between, such as for example having half the students on campus for half the time. Students were asked to weigh in via a “We Solve for Fall” idea bank. A determination, based on public health guidance, was expected by early July.

Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning and a professor of mechanical engineering, spoke at the virtual town hall in April about how exactly challenging it’s to re-create the MIT experience on line. “There’s a very special magic on campus,” that he said. And then he gleefully mixed two geeky cultural references in a fashion that rang true to everybody glued to a computer screen instead of bumping shoulders in the Infinite: “Hogwarts is not exactly the same without the wizards. And we look forward to seeing you all back here on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.” 

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