Distance Learning in the COVID-19 Era: A Reflection From Governor Swift

Today I am hosting a guest blog post from Governor Jane Swift, who is currently the Rappaport Center for Law & Public Policy Distinguished Visiting Professor.

The ironies abound. First, the course I am teaching at Boston College Law School is titled, “Governing in the Era of Facebook: Privacy, Propaganda & the Public Good.” The entire course is premised on the speed of innovation and how it is rapidly changing the nature of work and learning and challenging the legal and regulatory sectors. Second, I have been an executive in the Education Technology industry for nearly two decades. I have run online learning companies and sold and delivered online courses to schools and colleges. So, if anyone should have been ready to quickly pivot their face-to-face teaching as a Rappaport visiting professor from traditional delivery to online, that guest professor should have been me. If I could play a guitar or sing, however, I would have written and tried to get this video to trend.


One thing is really important to put in perspective from the get-go. What is happening this spring semester, where schools are continuing to deliver coursework to college and university students, is decidedly NOT online learning. True online courses, like the ones my colleagues and I built at Middlebury Interactive Languages, take months and sometimes years to build. They depend on professionals with specific expertise in course design to translate pedagogy from in-person to online. Even in online learning, there is huge variation in the degree of features and functionality, the use of video and audio, whether assessments are embedded in the course, and how those are proctored. None of that can happen at scale, securely in a three day or two week period. Instead, what you see now would more fairly be categorized as distance learning or – and even this is a stretch – as blended learning.

However, it is true that those education professionals who have paid attention to and embraced the opportunities that technology has brought to education are likely finding this transition easier. I have a great perch to view all this, and not just because I am riding out the quarantine on our family farm in Williamstown, MA.

Like many former ‘empty-nesters,’ my husband and I collected our three college-age daughters and they are all completing their semesters via distance learning. Elizabeth was called home from her junior year in London. Sarah was only back on campus for her spring semester, first year, at Loyola in Baltimore for a few days before she was required to evacuate – at first for two weeks, then extended to 4 weeks, and recently determined to be the rest of the semester. Lauren, also in her first year, scrambled with her peers at Northwestern (which follows the quarter system) to finish the winter term, where final exams were rescheduled and eventually made optional. She will begin her spring term at home, but holds out hope that the spring term (which extends into June) may allow a return. 

As I watch each of their professors attempt to adapt at the same time I schedule Zoom calls – weighing the relative merits of synchronous and asynchronous sessions (at least I knew the terms!) it is helpful to see what resonates with them. I also have the advantage of previous crisis leadership (Governor on 9/11), and while teaching at Williams College I even embedded academic teaching on crisis leadership into my course. The most important aspect of crisis leadership, regardless of your position, is communication. The professors who have sent emails to my daughters saying: Here is what I know, here is what I don’t know, and here is what we will make up as we go along — those are the courses and professors that are still making a big difference. 

So, I have tried to increase my communication with my students. Hopefully to the point that – like my own daughters – they are rolling their eyes at me! 

I’ve also tried to continue the human connection. When one student and I couldn’t get the sound to work on our 1:1 Zoom call and she had her husband help, I asked if she had a teenager handy for tech support. She responded no, just her husband. I advised that “comments like that might make for a long quarantine” (via chat, because we had no audio)! Humor and human connection matter in a crisis and they matter in teaching. It is what I love about getting the opportunity to teach, and frankly, why I was so sad when the announcement that BC was ‘going online’ was first made. But, so far, with extra effort both in my Rappaport teaching assignment and my day job, and with focus and teamwork, I am finding ways with the support of students and colleagues to make those connections. 

To be honest, some of my video productions are embarrassing. My first Zoom call with a guest speaker was scheduled for 3 am instead of 3 pm. I recorded our session on the ‘local’ not ‘cloud’ setting and had to manually re-do the whole thing in a low-tech way that made the final product decidedly not ready for prime-time. But the content got delivered (asynchronous!). I am learning more about teaching and technology in interesting ways and trying to push myself to try new things. Some friends and I are even doing a Facebook Live session in a closed-group next week! And I have started to incorporate some lessons around the role lawyers – particularly those working in public policy – play in a crisis into my teaching. 

After all, this is a historic event. And I think the best teaching, however it is delivered, draws on the learning opportunities that present themselves. This one is a doozy.  

Jane Swift, the only woman to have served as Governor in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and former Lieutenant Governor and State Senator, is the spring semester’s Jerome Lyle Rappaport Visiting Professor by BC Law’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy.

One thought on “Distance Learning in the COVID-19 Era: A Reflection From Governor Swift

  1. Pingback: ‘It’s a Doozy’ | Boston College Law School Magazine

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