Adapting residential courses for online cohorts

image of James Honan

James Honan, Senior Lecturer on Education at HGSE, has taught courses on nonprofit management and finance at Harvard since 1991 and additionally has 15 years of online teaching experience at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). When COVID-19 forced all teaching and learning at Harvard to move online, Honan and his teaching team were uniquely positioned to adapt his in-person courses for a new modality. With a robustly developed teaching toolkit across residential and online instructional formats, Honan currently teaches two versions of his Strategic Finance for Non-Profit Leaders course—one to residential students and one to the first cohort of HGSE’s fully online Ed.M. program, the Online Master's in Education Leadership. Honan and his longtime teaching team offer the online versions of the courses in one of HGSE’s state-of-the art studio classrooms, which features multiple large video screens, voice-activated cameras, and other technology enhancements to support effective online pedagogy.


The benefits 

 When adapting residential courses for the online format, each component of the course content, design, delivery, and technology is chosen deliberately. While the syllabus, topics, and course materials are the same across formats, the presentation and class-time activities differ to best accommodate remote learning. Honan introduced more multimedia and video resources—both pre-existing ones and ones that he has created for his courses—in recent years. His teaching team also utilizes a range of approaches to facilitate and deepen online interactions, including breakout rooms (convened in pairs, trios, learning teams of 5-6 students, etc.), brief summaries/reports produced in small groups to drive online case discussions, and the use of live online visits by experts and case protagonists. Many of these digital resources were built for the online classroom but are also staples in his in-person courses as well. 

“The pedagogy must drive the technology, not the other way around.”

The challenges

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, students understood that pivoting to an online format would be challenging. After two years of practice, students’ expectations have now risen. Technology glitches and unused airtime are bothersome. To avoid these issues, Honan and his teaching team work closely with HGSE’s IT department staff for his remote classes, and they plan each course session down to the minute, assigning each teaching team member specific responsibilities for class-time. The teaching team talks through each class meeting in advance to ensure the sessions run as smoothly as possible. Honan credits his highly skilled teaching team, including teaching fellows, his faculty assistant, HGSE IT staff, Gutman Library staff, and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Learning Incubator (he was a Learning Incubator Faculty Fellow in 2020-21) for their ongoing coaching, course design, and delivery assistance. Honan has been working with many members of his team for years, and he encourages other instructors to cultivate a team approach.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Learning outcomes should drive the technology. Honan argues that adding as many of the new “shiny bells and whistles” as possible to online courses shouldn’t be the goal. Rather, course content and learning outcomes should determine the course design and delivery and what technology-mediated components are introduced. Look to leverage the technology, rather than letting it determine your pedagogical choices. 
  • Take advantage of the Zoom chat. Although Zoom chats can be distracting for some, Honan and his teaching fellows have found that some students participate more via Zoom chat, particularly when it comes to asking questions and offering comments during class discussions. Honan and his teaching team field many questions and comments through private chat, but often relay them, with answers, to the full group. 
  • Encourage social spaces to create an online learning community. Honan opens his online classroom 15 minutes early and closes each class with a 15 minute “after party.” These times are meant to simulate the pre- and post-class times when students would be getting settled in the classroom or coming up to the podium to ask questions after class. He greets every student entering the Zoom room by name (even in a class of 90!) for each online class session and finds that offering informal social spaces as part of the learning community encourages higher levels of engagement. 

Bottom line

When adapting a residential course for an online format, be intentional about each component of the course design, content, and delivery, consider how to leverage technology, and be mindful and intentional about the creation of a productive and supportive learning community. Effective online instruction requires a highly skilled teaching team. Remember to let the pedagogy be your guide.