Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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Off Campus, On Line

Faculty and students adapt to the new normal of distance learning.

On March 12, in response to the growing spread of the coronavirus, President Paxson announced that for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, Brown classes would take place remotely. Classes were cancelled for the week of March 16 to enable students living on campus or in Brown-owned properties to pack and leave, and to give faculty time to transition their courses to remote learning.

At Watson, we wanted to know how the transition was going. Below, Eric Patashnik, Julis-Rabinowitz Professor of Public Policy, professor of political science, and director of Brown's Master of Public Affairs program, describes his experience so far. Interviews with additional faculty, and their students, will be posted throughout May.

What was the course you planned to teach, and how did you adapt it? 

I'm teaching Management and Implementation in Public and Nonprofit Organizations, a six-week core course for MPA students that meets twice weekly during the latter half of the semester. While we are covering the same theoretical concepts as the version of the course I had originally planned to teach, I made a number of changes to reflect not only the shift to online learning, but also the massive impact of the pandemic on the public policy space. 

I wanted to give students an opportunity to use the knowledge they are gaining in the course about public management to investigate how Covid-19 is affecting decision-making and implementation in bureaucracies. So I created a new final team project assignment: the students are required to choose two government agencies (either in the US or in another country) in the same public policy sector, such as health or affordable housing. Using information gathered through web research, media reports, and interviews, students are asked to compare and contrast the responses of the two organizations to Covid-19. Some of the questions I invited the students to consider include

  • What impact has Covid-19 had on each organization's tasks, budgets, strategies, public engagement activities, and interactions with elected officials?
  • How has Covid-19 affected the role of managers and front-line staff within each organization? 
  • What are the overall strengths and weaknesses of each organization's response to Covid-19, and what recommendations would they make to increase the capacity of each organization to meet its evolving responsibilities during this public health crisis? 

The students have come up with some great projects. For example, one team is comparing the responses of the agencies responsible for overseeing child care providers in Rhode Island and in the state of Washington. Another is comparing the Covid-19 responses of the Department of Transportation in the Jiangsu Province of China and the Department of Transportation in Texas. And a third is exploring how education agencies in both Wuhan, China, and New York City responded through policies such as school closures and the shift to online learning, and what the impact of these actions were on school children in the two locations.  I'm very excited to see what the students find in their research.

What was most challenging about this transition?

The most challenging aspect of the transition is simply not being in the same physical space as the students. I find this makes it more challenging for me to assess how the class is going. Do the students understand the concept I just introduced? Is the pace of my lecture too fast or too slow? Did they think the joke I just told was funny or lame? 

The students have been great about asking questions, but I find it is harder for me to pick up on their nonverbal cues when they aren't in the same room. Most of all, I miss seeing their smiles in person. 

Was there a pleasant surprise, a positive you didn’t anticipate? 

A pleasant surprise has been class attendance: I worried that it might drop off, but it hasn't.  

What have you learned in the process—about teaching, your students, or yourself? 

I've learned how resilient our students are—and how supportive they are of one another. This is a very stressful time to be a graduate student, and I know that students and their families are dealing with serious economic and personal challenges. But the students are focused and engaged, and I can see through their interactions in the chat function on Zoom that they are being kind and compassionate to one another. 

Read a student’s perspective here.