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March/April 2020

Education in the Time of Covid-19

Rick L. Danheiser

The crisis brought on by the Covid-19 global pandemic has turned all of our worlds upside down. For me, a bright spot has been seeing how the Institute and the MIT community has responded to this unprecedented emergency. There are many unsung heroes among our staff, administration, faculty, and students, and I hope that their contributions will receive the recognition they deserve when we return to some semblance of normalcy. I regret that I cannot spare the time to celebrate them here, as like many colleagues I have been working overtime seven days a week and participating in up to eight Zoom conferences in a single day. Instead, in this column I expand on some of what was a major focus of Faculty Governance during the first weeks of the crisis – adjusting our academic policies to accommodate the profound impact of Covid-19 on our educational enterprise.

A principal consequence of the requirement to "de-densify" the MIT campus was the need to develop online, "remote" versions of our subjects. Designing and implementing remote equivalents for our courses in less than two weeks was no easy task, but by and large our faculty, instructors, and teaching assistants rose to the challenge. In the case of some subjects that already incorporated significant online components, this did not require major changes, but for most subjects a daunting amount of work was necessary. As we have worked on crafting remote versions of our subjects, a key guiding principle has been to focus on identifying the essential learning goals of our courses. Our overriding aim has been for students to emerge from this novel and difficult semester equipped with the essential knowledge and tools they would have acquired in a normal spring term. I have to say that I have been very impressed by the creativity and rigor of many of the offerings that instructors have developed to meet this extraordinary challenge.

While our faculty and instructors were working to design remote versions of their subjects, the Faculty Officers were considering what changes in our normal academic procedures would be required. It turns out that in the event of a "Significant Disruption" of academic activities, Section 2.102 of the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty permits the Chair of the Faculty to declare that "emergency academic procedures" are in effect and to impose temporary changes in the regulations regarding the academic calendar, registration, assignments and examinations, grades, the procedures for accepting theses, and the awarding of degrees.

It appears that this addition to Rules and Regulations was made after the disruptions in 1970 during the time of the Vietnam War, and it is interesting that the regulation specifically defines "significant disruptions" as including "natural disaster, civil unrest, or pandemic illness." Perhaps a Professor Nostradamus played a role in the development of this amendment to Rules and Regulations 50 years ago.

The Emergency Academic Regulations ("EARs") were developed by a team that I led and which included my fellow Faculty Officers Professors Duane Boning and David Singer, Tami Kaplan (Faculty Governance Administrator), and (alphabetically) Professor Arthur Bahr (Chair of CUP), Chris Bourg, Registrar Mary Callahan, Professor Dan Frey (Chair of CGP), Professor Anne McCants, Professor Kris Prather (Chair of CAP), Professor Krishna Rajagopal (Dean of Digital Learning), Professor Larry Vale (Associate Dean, SA+P), and Professor and Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz. We also consulted with the officers of the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council, and they provided valuable input during our deliberations.

Developing emergency regulations that take into consideration the diversity of our educational offerings, that anticipate exceptional situations, and which are sensitive to the difficult and unusual circumstances confronting our students, our faculty, and all members of the MIT community who support our educational programs, was no easy task. Some decisions were especially difficult and in these cases we made a particular effort to consult widely and to carefully consider diverse views.

To enable and support our focus on learning goals and innovative pedagogy, we announced on March 12 that the "alternate" grading system provided for in the Faculty's Rules and Regulations for times of emergency would be mandated for all subjects this semester. This decision was not made lightly, and was made only after extensive deliberation and consultation with other faculty, mental health and wellness professionals, and student leaders. Appreciating the importance of grades to MIT students, the team spent an enormous amount of time considering when "alternate grades" should be employed during this period of significant disruption. Four scenarios were discussed extensively: (a) Individual Instructors could choose whether to use normal letter grades or alternate grades on a subject-by-subject basis; (b) Alternate grades would be mandated for all subjects; (c) Alternate grades would be the default grading system but individual students would have an opportunity to "opt in" for letter grades in a subject; (d) Letter grades would be the default grading system but individual students would have an opportunity to "opt in" for alternate grades in a subject. After extensive deliberation, which included important input from Student Support and Wellbeing, the Team unanimously decided to mandate alternate grades for all subjects, i.e., Scenario (b). As explained below, the Team concluded that this is most consistent with the intent of Rules and Regulations, would best mitigate current and future stress and anxiety of students, and most importantly, it is the grading system that recognizes and responds to the significant disruption that impacts all students and our entire shared academic endeavor.

While many students expressed gratitude and applauded our decision to mandate "universal" pass/no record grading, other students were dismayed and appealed to us to reconsider. Students expressed the concern that not having letter grades this semester might adversely impact their applications for graduate school, medical school, internships, and other positions outside MIT. The Emergency Academic Regulations Team took this concern most seriously but concluded that having alternate grades this semester will not negatively affect applications for jobs and admission to programs outside MIT. The current global pandemic affects everyone and the unusual circumstances of this semester will certainly be taken into account in the future as professional schools and companies evaluate applications. It is likely that other measures of performance will have greater than usual importance, including, for example, letters of recommendation which provide Instructors with an opportunity to elaborate in detail on a student's performance. In fact, as we expected, one by one graduate and professional schools have published assurances that they will evaluate students holistically and that applicants will not be at a disadvantage if they were graded P/NR this semester.

In summary, the Emergency Academic Regulations Team concluded that adopting alternate grades this semester will not have a detrimental effect on the competitiveness of MIT students seeking positions outside the Institute. A number of considerations then led the Team to decide that mandating alternate grades was the best grading scheme for the Institute to adopt during this period of disruption.

  • The original intent of Rules and Regulations 2.64 is that alternate grades would be employed in the event of a natural disaster or pandemic illness as a result of which Instructors would be unable to make the usual distinction between (for example) A-level, B-level, and C-level work due to the disruption. The Team decided that to think that Instructors would be able to assign a letter grade for some students in a class and not for other students is not consistent with Section 2.64 of Rules and Regulations.
  • The Team concluded after extensive consultation and discussion that the nature and magnitude of the disruption caused by Covid-19 is such that assigning accurate letter grades will not be possible in essentially all full-term (and H4) subjects this semester. There are several reasons for this. Few if any Instructors have experience with the evaluation of a student's mastery of material via remote means. In fact, many faculty have no experience whatsoever in delivering class material via online vehicles and the time available for Instructors to get up to speed is limited. The Team expects that there will have to be quite a lot of experimentation this spring with Instructors trying out alternative ways to evaluate progress and performance.
  • It is also worth bearing in mind that these are also difficult times for our Instructors and for all of the members of our Teaching Staffs as well. The lives of everyone are being disrupted and teaching from home is not easy for many Instructors, some of whom have to deal with having young children at home due to the closing of schools and daycare facilities. In summary, the Team concluded that the accurate determination of grades will be especially challenging this semester and it is not reasonable to expect Instructors to be able to make the usual distinctions required in a letter grade system.
  • Students are accustomed to studying together and benefiting from support groups of classmates and it is very uncertain to what extent this can be reproduced remotely in the coming months. The impact of this on different students is likely to vary considerably and Instructors will not be in a position to take this accurately into account in assigning grades.
  • The Team was also concerned that different students will be experiencing different situations at home, and for some students it may be very challenging to focus on studying. This is in addition to the general stress and anxiety that the Covid-19 crisis is causing in everyone, students, their families, and the members of our teaching staff.
  • The Team was advised that giving students a letter grade "opt in" choice would in fact lead to increased stress and anxiety for many students. For example, some students would feel pressured to choose to opt in for a letter grade because not doing so would be interpreted to mean that their performance was not strong.
  • The Team discussed a number of other considerations. One was associated with the question of final exams. Some of our peer schools require that remote final exams be "open book." A number of faculty instructors here at MIT have suggested that "open book" exams necessarily have to be different and perhaps more difficult as compared to exams conducted in person in past years. Mandating that alternate grades are in effect relieves the concerns of Instructors in this regard, allowing them to be comfortable designing exams to be conducted remotely that are similar to exams of past years.

The decision to mandate alternate grades for all subjects was announced on March 12. MIT was one of the very first schools to adopt what some have referred to as "universal pass/no record grading," and it has been gratifying to see that a number of our peers such as Columbia and Harvard have followed our lead, in some cases even reversing their initial decisions. The Faculty Officers believe that the Institute has taken the correct course with the emergency academic regulations that have been promulgated thus far, and we hope to continue to make the right decisions as we help steer our academic program through the rough waters ahead.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXXII No. 4 March/April 2020