Open Classroom Creates Popular New Path to Learning and Community Engagement

Community Engagement; Diversity; Faculty; Policy; Public Health; Research; Social Work

Although Open Classroom, the Brown School’s innovative digital forum for learning, was born of a pandemic, its success appears to ensure that it will continue to exist well after the crisis that spawned it. The program has featured dozens of presentations by faculty and community leaders on current topics in social work and public health and has been attended by thousands of participants from around the U.S. and the world.

“Open Classroom is fulfilling a need I don’t think anyone anticipated,” said Janet Gillow, the Brown School’s director of Professional Development, who oversees the free, lunch-hour Zoom events that are recorded and available on the school’s YouTube channel. “We’ve found a tremendous appetite for learning events that don’t require driving to campus and parking in the garage in the middle of the day. It’s also an open portal that could connect us with prospective students, colleagues at peer institutions, and others all over the world.”

The initiative began early in the pandemic after the office of Dean Mary McKay got requests from community organizations the school had partnered with. The organizations had to send clients home during the initial lockdown but wanted to make good use of their staff’s time. McKay and Gillow developed a series of 10 webinars, and asked for faculty volunteers to lead them.

The program’s first offering on March 30, 2020, was about the pandemic’s impact on older people and was led by Nancy Morrow-Howell, the Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy. The reception for the inaugural session of the fledgling program was an eye-opener: 170 people attended live and the recording was viewed more than 1,200 times. Another, about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on people of color, was attended by more than 300 and has been viewed on YouTube over 2,000 times.

“Everyone on our faculty stepped up so beautifully,” said McKay, the Neidorff Family and Centene Corporation Dean of the Brown School. “Although the pandemic prevented us from hosting large gatherings in Hillman Hall, Open Classroom has enabled us to offer our local community and communities around the world our expertise and that of other leaders to build understanding and promote evidence-based change, which is the essence of the Brown School’s mission.” She noted that Brown students were engaged to find other providers of free training and created a library of resources.

Open Classroom has offered more than 140 programs and attracted 40,000 viewers from all 50 states and 12 foreign countries, Gillow said. Faculty, professional development instructors and alumni have been among the leaders of the lectures and panels, which have included a mix of scholarly experts, community practitioners, and other community voices. Initial topics were related to COVID-19 but went on to include presentation/discussions on varied subjects, including:

  • Africa Speaks, a series of programs sponsored by the university’s Africa Initiative, that promotes collaborative research and learning among faculty and students from WashU and Africa.
  • A discussion about social workers in city government, featuring St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones.
  • Inclusive Perspectives, a monthly webinar series organized by a group of faculty and staff led by Jean-Francois Trani, associate professor, to raise awareness and advance the goal of full inclusion of people with disabilities.

Cynthia Williams, assistant dean for community partnerships, helped develop Open Classroom and has served as the moderator for many of the sessions, including several that dealt with COVID-19 and race. “Our COVID & Race series has been among our most-viewed programs,” she said, and included local experts such as Dr. Alex Garza, who led the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force; Angela Fleming Brown, CEO of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission; and faculty such as Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development.

“It has been a real pleasure for me,” Williams said. “Those voices helped to give clarity around the science and practice put in place during COVID to keep the community safe and informed in real-time.” She said the virtual classes were as or more impactful than in-person events might have been. “The big difference was the audience could be expanded, easily accessible, and helped us ensure we could get voices of leaders who didn’t have to worry about traveling, parking, and fitting [it] into their packed schedules.”

Williams is particularly proud of the Black History Month classes in 2021 that featured weekly panels and drew large audiences.

As a moderator, Williams said the virtual sessions make it easier to synthesize audience questions. “We get to the facts faster, and get the most out of an hour,” she said. “It makes things much more efficient.”

The efficiency and convenience were appreciated by the audience as well.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” said Peggy Keilholz, MSW ’84, a retired social worker who found out about Open Classroom through mailings from the Brown School and so far has attended 28 classes. “I was attending so many I bought notebooks. I had notes flying everywhere. And it had the right price tag: Free.”

She particularly liked the classes that featured public health experts like Timothy McBride, Bernard Becker Professor at the Brown School. “It was information that was extremely useful, and not available in the media,” she said. Most impactful for her was Joe’s reflection that “race” and “racial” were often artificial constructs. “There is only one human race,” she said. “I’ve used that over and over again.”

Perhaps the largest audience for an Open Classroom event was one in which Mark Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley Professor of Social Welfare, launched his new book, “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty.” More than 1,000 people signed up and 500 hundred attended, with many more watching the recorded event later – numbers that Rank said were far more than those he typically receives at in-person book events. “It was a great turnout,” said Rank, who talked for 30 minutes about the book and then opened it up for questions and discussion.

“It was different because when you do stuff in front of people, you get a sense of the crowd and make a connection,” he said. “The great advantage of Open Classroom is I can do it from my office and people from all over can attend. I’d compare it with my virtual teaching. The advantage is I can see everybody and their name, and the discussion tends to be better.”

“I don’t think virtual events will replace in-person learning, but will be another important tool for us to use in the future.”

The disparity of location of the participants can make for some unscripted moments. Rank said he participated in one Open Classroom event with Brown alumnus Stephanie Krauss, who had written a new book and was participating from her hotel room in Florida. Halfway through, the audience could hear a frantic knocking on her door, telling her there was a fire in the building and she had to evacuate (she did), leaving Rank to finish the hour. “I had to wing it,” he said. “It was crazy.”

Carol Klukaczewski, who lives in Wisconsin, heard about Open Classroom from her daughter, Grace Newton, MSW ’21, who recommended an April 2020 class led by Melissa Johnson-Reid, Ralph and Muriel Pumphrey Professor of Social Work Research, on protecting children during COVID-19. “The information was very current and relevant because COVID was just expanding and people were concerned about kids,” said Klukaczewski, a retired social worker who has attended more than 20 classes.

“Besides providing a window into the world of what my daughter was experiencing (Newton is now a social worker in Madison, WI), the sessions have kept me abreast of cutting-edge research, programs, and strategies that deal with health, poverty, diversity and equity, child welfare and more. Through these extremely accessible programs, I have become even more aware of the need to continue to be active as a citizen. They are a great reminder that we all have a role to play in making this a better society.”

Gillow said Open Classroom has opened previously unimagined doors for the school. “We’re been able to do things we’ve never dreamed of before,” she said. “It’s been a surprise and an adventure. It felt meaningful to do something people found value in, especially when so many people were feeling so much pain.”