Clay Shirky wearing a white N95 mask

Clay Shirky (FAS/TSOA)

Guiding an Entire University Into Remote Learning

By Lindsy Van Gelder

In the midst of the unimaginable global catastrophe of COVID-19, NYU caught a break.

The previous year, the Board of Trustees had charged the university with figuring out what to do if—hypothetically—there were interruptions to business as usual at any NYU location. Vice Provost for Educational Technologies Clay Shirky formulated a plan detailing options if an entire campus had to be shut down. “I wasn’t nearly pessimistic enough,” he says now. “I could not imagine that we would have to evacuate every campus at roughly the same time.”

But there was a second lucky break, dating back five years to Shirky’s tenure as head of faculty technology at NYU Shanghai. He deemed Skype and similar tools inadequate for online classes. “One of my colleagues said, ‘Hey, there is this new videoconferencing service called Zoom. You ought to check it out,’ ” Shirky recalls. By the time of New York City’s lockdown, NYU was “already a Zoom shop,” he says.

The initial focus at that time was simply on transitioning all classes to live video and making sure everyone knew how to use the mute button and go to a breakout room. Of the thousands of classes taught university-wide, only a very small percentage were scratched for the rest of the 2019–2020 school year.

An unseen nightmare was the prospect of glitches in high-stakes testing—for instance, if a student whose grade depended heavily on a final exam had a terrible Internet connection. Shirky’s team strongly suggested that unless there was a regulatory requirement, faculty switch assessment methods.

“It was a slog,” he says. “We got through it and breathed a huge sigh of relief in May, but March and April were high-stress.” What kept everyone going, Shirky says, were the constant reminders that humans are more than an “atomized set of video streams.” Faculty members wrote in with suggestions (one example: stress levels decreased if students at home held their pets up to the camera). His own email that got the biggest response was one to his team with no technical instructions whatsoever: it was simply a reminder to care for themselves and that “we’ve got your back; call if you need help.”

Everyone’s adoption of the tools—and their comfort levels using them—just fast-forwarded, says Shirky, who adds, “Those of us who think about this stuff for a living are actually playing catch-up now.”