Online versus in-class instruction is not really our choice for Fall

I am starting my fourteenth year as a professor at a residential university in a bucolic rural setting. I enjoy relatively small classes and the resulting opportunity to really get to know many of my students. Our discussions are more effective because we can see the non-verbal cues – expressions and body language of each other. I freely walk around the classroom, encouraging students to participate in the discussion and discouraging some from participating on Snapchat or Youtube.

I am strongly biased in favor of face-to-face classroom instruction. But I don’t believe that what is offered on campuses this fall is recognizable as face-to-face instruction.

Spring 2020 comparison of online and face-to-face

I teach social media marketing and product innovation, both of which are naturally hands-on, experiential courses. I have employed many of the techniques of the flipped classroom – including recorded lectures and tests and readings outside class – so my efforts to suddenly covert my courses online in the Spring due to the pandemic were likely less painful than many of my colleagues. In addition, my topics and project-focus probably transferred better than most.

Nevertheless, both my students and me preferred the in-class half of the semester to the online half. My students liked the fact that I employed Zoom to retain personal contact but agreed with the comments from a recent study from a professor at another university whose students decried:

  • The loss of structure,
  • Reduced peer-to-peer and student-instructor interaction, and
  • The loss of immediacy – having a question answered as it comes up.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a Facebook page for professors dealing with teaching during the pandemic. I have followed the reports of how different universities are planning to deal with Coronavirus in the Fall. Some universities are planning to be online in the Fall, some are still deciding, but it seems that most residential universities are planning to offer in-class instruction in the fall.

Most announced university plans seem to employ similar techniques to comply with CDC guidelines. As I read and study the proposals it is apparent that the choice for fall instruction is NOT traditional in-class versus online teaching.

COVID-Blended-Distanced “face-to-face” classes

Given adherence to the CDC guidelines for classroom instruction, a university in the Fall is choosing between online instruction and COVID-Blended-Distanced in-class instruction.  These classes will be significantly different from traditional in-class classes. (Virtual reality lab – CalTech)

From announcements and discussions in the Chronicle‘s Facebook page, COVID-Blended-Distanced classes share these features:

  • Classes with 40/50 or more students are online,
  • Relaxed attendance policy (don’t encourage anyone not feeling well to attend),
  • Accommodations for students with pre-existing conditions,
  • Serve students who don’t attend (simultaneous Zoom session or recording),
  • Meet in large rooms with 6-foot spacing between students,
  • Require students to wear masks, and
  • Professors stay behind a plexiglass shield.

I applaud the effort to protect students and faculty. But thinking about the environment under these conditions I believe that it will be fundamentally different from the traditional in-class experience. 

As a professor, I will no longer wander around the class as I will respect distancing, will want to avoid the need to wear a mask myself, and will often want to remain in webcam range for the remote participants in the class. Students will be more distant and separated. I will not be able to effectively read facial expressions through masks.

In addition, I will be distracted by the need to monitor the remote students on Zoom. The additional duties to enforce masks and distancing in class are also potential distractions.

Which is more personal?

I look forward to future pedagogical studies of COVID-Blended-Distanced classes versus online synchronous classes. I suspect that classes held via Zoom or its competitors may end up being more personal and encourage more interaction than in-person classes under the pandemic rules.

Being able to see each other’s faces on our screens and having fewer distractions should help communication, both peer-to-peer and student-instructor. We should have some evidence either way at the end of the semester.

I believe that most students and professors will continue to look forward to a return to traditional in-person instruction. But in the meantime…

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