It ended up being quite a radical thing for me. In undergraduate teaching, I’m very keen not have any technology in the classroom ... Seeing how things worked in this seminar would make me more inclined to actually try something...to have them listen to a piece and start to compile reactions in a Google Doc. Or you could even have a Google Doc for a section, and compile the questions that came up from lecture, and then see what you can respond to.
— Emily Dolan

During the Spring 2016 semester, music professor Emily Dolan co-led a graduate seminar entitled "Instruments and Instrumentality" with her colleague Jonathan Sterne, Professor of Culture and Technology at McGill University in Montreal. Seminars met in parallel on each campus, and every other week came together for communal discussion via video conference. The groups also met in-person twice: each class visited the opposite campus over their own spring vacation. Prior to the start of the course, the Bok Center met with Professor Dolan several times in order to develop a range of possible models for conducting a humanities graduate seminar by video conference.

Bok Center staff and fellows also directly supported the first several meetings of Professor Dolan’s seminar by troubleshooting early technical obstacles. Eventually, the seminar settled on a model in which each professor facilitated live discussion among students via video chat, supplemented by a live text backchannel (via Google Docs), on which students shared ideas, references, and links. At the end of the semester, the Bok Center conducted interviews with graduate students from Harvard and McGill, collecting their reactions and experiences, in addition to their reflections on the seminar's emergent meta-theme: in a class on instruments and instrumentality, the classroom itself was revealed as an instrument of teaching and learning.

Students had several pieces of advice for future connected seminars. First of all, they recommended that geographically disconnected groups should make every effort to meet in person as early in the class as possible: many students reported that the social and intellectual dynamics of the seminar were considerably more relaxed and productive after the first in-person meeting in March. Both the students and the instructors were also pleased with the model on which the seminar eventually settled: on group meeting days, each seminar would converse independently during the first hour, often in small groups divided up to discuss one reading each. Finally, all involved praised the interdisciplinary encounters staged by the seminar. Most of the Harvard students were graduate students in music, while most of the McGill students were in Communications Studies degree programs. The co-taught seminar proved to be an exciting way to bring together students from different institutional and disciplinary cultures, bringing to bear a wide variety of experience and expertise on the work of the seminar.

“It’s interesting ... we keep on thinking that we want to create an environment where people have to converse in a very natural way, but maybe that’s not the way we should do it at all. Maybe we should just all sit there and just type on Google Docs, and that maybe we have a lot more interaction on Google Docs than we have by speaking through the systems.”
— Pei-Ling Huang, Harvard

Media, tools, and literacies: web conferencing, back-channel chat, livestreaming, classroom design, remote seminar facilitation.

Deliverables and outcomes: web-conference teaching templates; faculty and graduate student refections on seminar design and interdisciplinary learning in the humanities; purchased equipment and developed expertise to support future video-based classes and seminars at Harvard.


Additional Media

Prof. Emily Dolan on being present in a hybrid classroom.

Grad students Laurie Lee and Pei-Ling Huang on interfaces.

Prof. Emily Dolan on using technology in the classroom.


Project Timeline