In this issue:
- How the HarvardX online learning platform is enabling classes to continue during the pandemic.
- Two UK Harvard undergraduates talk about how they are coping with online classes since the campus was evacuated in March, and give tips to UK school students learning online for the first time.
- Applying to Harvard next year: information on the application process for UK students applying to Harvard this autumn for entry in 2021, and extra dates for taking the SAT and ACT tests in 2020.
- Updates from UK qualification authorities about how they will recognise learner achievement for school students unable to take their normal exams this summer.
Harvard will open for the Fall Semester 2020 – whether on campus or virtually
At the end of April, University Provost Alan M Garber sent a message to all Harvard affiliates announcing that Harvard will be open for the Fall Semester, even if classes have to continue online. This rules out one option floated by other universities and some students: delaying the upcoming semester entirely. (Full story in the Harvard Crimson).
Harvard plans to decide no later than July whether students may return to the residential campus in the fall. If it is deemed unsafe for students to return to campus, the university is in an unusually strong position to deliver online learning. Harvard Extension School (Harvard’s continuing education school) has been offering online courses since 1997, and in 2012, Harvard and MIT jointly launched edX, a non-profit online learning platform offering high-quality courses from the world’s best universities. Since that time, HarvardX has developed and delivered online courses in most subject areas, including biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, law, literature, maths & statistics, medicine, music, philosophy and physics.
Many undergraduate courses already have online versions, and where they don’t, Harvard faculty are working hard to develop them by the fall. Although this is certainly a challenge, faculty have the huge advantage that they are evolving their courses using a well established learning platform, rather than having to develop online teaching from scratch.
But no online course, however well constructed, can possibly be a substitute for the intense social interaction of a university campus, where discussions in the dorm can last all night and friendships have a special quality that often last for the rest of your life. So how is online learning viewed by UK students who had to return home in March and continue their studies online? Find out in the next section.
How to keep motivated when learning online: stick to a routine; change your clothes; maintain contact with friends
Most UK students reading this will have been studying at home for some weeks now. Harvard students were sent home in March and have been continuing their classes online ever since – and students who have been admitted to Harvard starting in August this year may well be taking all their classes online during their first semester.
We asked two UK Harvard undergraduates, Olivia Bryant and Humza Mahmood, how they are coping with online classes at home and whether they have any tips for students who may be new to online learning. (Humza is in his first year at Harvard; Olivia is in her third year). Besides the obvious disadvantages, they have also found some unexpected benefits to taking classes from home.
Olivia Bryant, Harvard Class of 2021
Which Harvard classes are you taking online this semester?
- Stat 149: Generalized Linear Models
- Stat 117: Data Analysis in Modern Biostatistics
- Hist 1001: The War in Vietnam
- Hist 1049: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust
- Reclaiming Argument: Logic as a Force for Good – General Education
- Law and Society through the Cinematic Frame – Freshman Seminar
- Elementary Modern Chinese II
- Ec 10b: Principles of Economics (Macroeconomics)
- Truth Claims in a Post-Truth World – Expository Writing 20
What are the best aspects of online classes?
I had 9am classes Monday-Thursday but thanks to the time difference, they are now at 2pm!
- Being able to do things from the comfort of your own home with no travel time.
- More opportunity to plan for classes.
- Being in the UK time zone is really good – you have the entire morning to prepare for classes, which start at 2pm UK time.
- More material gets covered during the class, as there is less time for small talk (although this is also a disadvantage).
What are the worst aspects of online classes?
It’s much harder to work on group projects and it’s tricky to write essays without access to a good library. I usually enjoy working on problem sets with friends (and snacks!) in the dining halls where we can ensure we are all being productive. It’s sometimes hard to motivate myself!
- There is definitely less warmth as small talk is very different.
- Cannot participate in campus activities. I miss my rowing team’s early mornings at Newell Boathouse, the social and cultural events, going to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park!
- I miss the dining halls and the random conversations there.
Do you have any tips for UK school students who are taking their lessons online for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your teachers if you don’t understand something. If you are working on your own and you get stuck, it can be really easy to get flustered and frustrated with yourself. Classes may be online but it doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help as you normally would in school. Teachers and classmates are only an email away and I’m sure they would be glad to help you. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you are finding it difficult and it will save you problems when you return to school.
- Present – be present for all your online lessons – concentrate in the lesson like you were actually there in person.
- Participate – remain enthusiastic – contribute to the lesson and grow your knowledge.
What does a typical day look like when taking all your classes online?
It’s reading week at the moment, so I don’t have lectures anymore and I am just focusing on final papers. However, when I did have classes, my 9am classes were moved to 2pm thanks to the time difference which meant I could sleep in a lot later than I usually would during the semester. I would read the news and try to get through half a book or so before my classes, which were in the afternoon and the early evening. The number of classes I had each day varied as some involved watching them live on Zoom whereas others were pre-recorded and I could watch them whenever I wanted to. I would then work on homework until around 1/2 am. I would never normally work this late, but I find it easier to work when my family is asleep and I always get at least 8 hours of sleep. I take a few breaks throughout the day to call friends or knit (I’ve nearly finished my second jumper during quarantine!)
I start at around 8am and do all my preparation in the morning, including homework. I have lunch at 1pm and classes start at 2pm. Everyone logs on for class at roughly the same time – but some people are still late! Most classes last for 75 minutes, but my Freshman Seminar class is longer (2 hrs), as the Professor spends the first 30 minutes asking each of us how we are doing generally.
What kinds of teaching methods are used?
When we did have classes, we had lectures and sections (seminars). These were very similar to in-person lectures and sections and I would take notes throughout as I normally would. Professors hold office hours so we can ask questions if we are stuck. There’s a big focus on independent work at university, so I spend most of my time working on homework and keeping up with my readings. Some classes use Piazza which is like a large discussion board where students can ask questions at any time and Professors or other students answer.
The teachers do most of the talking but you can raise your hand if you have a question. In Chinese, you have to concentrate because they still cold call! The content and timing of the classes is mostly the same as on campus. The General Education class has changed the most, as the lectures are pre-recorded, and seminars are taken in small groups afterwards.
What kinds of assignments do you have? How are they assessed?
Two of my classes had final projects rather than final exams anyway, so they haven’t been affected much by the switch to online learning. One of my statistics classes replaced a big final exam with lots of individual quizzes, whilst keeping homework assignments and a final group course project the same. One of my history classes gave us the option of writing an 8-page paper and sitting a final exam or writing a 15-20 page paper. Personally, my assignments haven’t changed drastically. I have still had to submit a lot of homework assignments, take exams, and finish quite hefty final projects, so the workload hasn’t really changed. Professors have been much more flexible with deadlines and are always only an email away. The College decided that we would not get actual letter grades but a pass or fail, so some Professors are still giving grades and then anyone who gets above a C- gets a pass, whereas others are already just giving a pass or a fail. The lack of grades is one of the biggest differences between the beginning of the semester and the end in terms of academics.
The number of assignments has decreased, so homework is a little easier. In Chinese, the assignments have had to change as there is no way to handwrite the characters. Most assignments are multiple choice quizzes, but there are essays for my Expository Writing and Freshman Seminar classes. We also have exams, but as we are taking them at home, they are open book exams – not timed tests. Each exam paper is released at a particular day and time and has to be submitted a few days later. All courses are now graded as pass/fail – there are no letter grades.
How do you motivate yourself to carry on learning without the stimulus of a university environment and face to face interaction with your classmates?
It’s definitely difficult to stay motivated, especially now that classes have finished. My sister is in Year 12 and is learning at home too and she is doing a much better job at staying motivated than me! I think it helps to work out a routine and try and stick to it, regardless of whether this is similar to your old routine. I think it’s important to schedule in calls with friends to stay in contact and add some structure. At the moment, I am planning summer activities, such as volunteering, courses, and internships online, and I find it motivating to see how many opportunities are available. One silver lining of online learning is that you now have more time to work on things that interest you, whether that’s picking up a new hobby, reading more, learning a language, or volunteering. You’ll be surprised how much is available online and learning during this pandemic does not need to be restricted to your ordinary classwork. Take a look at HarvardX! Make sure you schedule a time to exercise and take a break from staring at screens all day.
I put on a fresh set of clothes every morning, and keep to a set routine for class preparation and homework. It’s handy that I am genuinely interested in all my classes because it helps to keep me motivated. I make sure to get two hours’ exercise every day, going fast on the bike or taking it slow with a family walk.
Updated information for students applying to Harvard this autumn for entry in 2021
This information is relevant to the following UK year groups:
Year 12 (England and Wales)
Year 13 (Northern Ireland)
Apart from the rearranged dates for the SAT and ACT standardised tests, the application process for Harvard will be much the same as a normal year. Please read the Special Message for High School Juniors Applying to Harvard.
The main points covered in the message are:
- Standardised Tests. While the SAT or ACT are still a required part of the application to Harvard, there is no need to take the SAT or ACT tests more than once. The SAT Subject Tests are already optional at Harvard and you will not be disadvantaged if you cannot take them.
- Summer Exam Grades. You will not be disadvantaged if your exam grades this summer are based on your coursework and online assignments.
- Whole Person Review. Scores and grades are only one part of the process. Accomplishments in and out of the classroom, community involvement, and personal qualities are all taken into consideration. Students who find themselves limited in the activities they can pursue due to the coronavirus outbreak will not be disadvantaged.
- Financial Aid. Harvard’s financial aid program will not be affected in any way, as ensuring access for talented students from every background remains a top priority. Students from families with an income of less than £50,000 per year with average assets are still likely to receive a free Harvard education. Calculate your estimated scholarship using Harvard’s Net Price Calculator.
Other US colleges will have a similar message regarding any changes to their admissions or financial aid policies on their websites, so be sure to check out all the colleges on your shortlist. For example, click here to see Yale’s message to prospective students, their families, and educators.
Update on SAT test dates
The SAT and SAT Subject Tests that were due to take place on 6 June have been cancelled. The College Board (which administers the SAT) anticipates that it will provide SAT administrations once a month from 29 August onwards, subject to the Test Centres reopening.
In the UK, most Test Centres are in schools and colleges, so SAT tests cannot take place until the UK Government allows schools to reopen. The dates of school reopening are likely to be different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as responsibility for coronavirus restrictions is devolved to the four national governments. UK students should therefore keep up to date with statements made by their own government regarding school reopening, and make sure they know where their nearest SAT Test Centres are located.
Anticipated international SAT test dates for the rest of 2020 (subject to change)
29 August 2020 (SAT and SAT Subject Tests)
26 September 2020 (SAT only)
3 October 2020 (SAT and SAT Subject Tests)
7 November 2020 (SAT only)
5 December 2020 (SAT and SAT Subject Tests)
Update on ACT test dates
The next international test dates for the ACT have been rescheduled for 12 & 13 June and 17 & 18 July.
Anticipated international ACT test dates for the rest of 2020 (subject to change)
11 & 12 September 2020
9 & 10 October
11 & 12 December 2020
As most UK Test Centres are located in schools, UK students should keep themselves informed about when schools are reopening in their region as coronavirus restrictions are slowly lifted, and make sure they know where their nearest ACT Test Centres are located.
Statements by UK Qualification Authorities
UK qualification authorities have now all published statements about how they will recognise learner achievement for school students unable to take their normal exams this summer. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate qualification bodies so students should check the relevant links for their country.
How GCSEs, AS and A Levels will be awarded in summer 2020
Ofqual released details of the assessment scheme for England on 3 April. Click here to read the Ofqual statement and learn how GCSE, AS and A Level grades will be calculated this summer.
Scotland: Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)
Estimating grades for National 5, Higher, and Advanced Higher courses
The SQA is the executive non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government responsible for accrediting educational awards. On 2 April it released a message to schools and colleges outlining its arrangements for quality assurance and certification of national courses and awards.
Wales: Qualifications Wales
Assessment grades for GCSEs, AS and A Levels, and Skills Challenge Certificate
On 3 April Qualifications Wales published information for learning centres on the submission of assessment grades and a message to learners taking exams in summer 2020.
Northern Ireland: Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CEA)
Awarding for GCSE, AS and A Level Qualifications Summer 2020
In April the CEA published a Summer 2020 Examinations Update, including Student, Teacher and Parent Information and Head of Centre Guidance.