Teaching and learning remotely: how well does this work?

April 10, 2020 • 12:00 pm

This is just a short post to give my views and collect the opinions of readers, particularly if they’re either teaching remotely or learning remotely this semester (the situation for nearly all American colleges). It was my view, when I heard about this, that it would be a poor substitute for live teaching, though perhaps more so for small seminars than for large courses.  And that remains my view. For without exception, all of my colleagues who are doing this—I haven’t asked anybody at the University of Chicago as this just started here—think it’s an inferior way of teaching.

I, for one, wouldn’t want to do this, though I’m no longer teaching. I used to teach a large required bio course on Ecology & Evolution (I did the evolution bit), with students numbering between 50 and 125. I really enjoyed lecturing, as there’s a performative aspect to it that gets your juices flowing. You can walk back and forth and gesticulate, which you can’t really do lecturing to a camera. And feedback from the audience, as well as student questions, are important. If you’re not getting your point across to them, you’ll know it! Lecturing to a camera, and giving multiple-choice tests (I always gave short essays), are just things I don’t want to do, not to mention the lack of labs (yes, we had labs).

As for graduate reading-and-discussion seminars, which I taught once a year, those would be virtually impossible to do remotely, at least as I conducted them. My ideal seminar comprised 12-16 students sitting around a round table and discussing stuff, and I would guide them and sometimes call on people to summarize readings or give an opinion. I just couldn’t do that properly by remote learning.

So while universities throughout the U.S. are touting the success of these programs, I think they’re only making a virtue of necessity, and that’s clear from what I hear from colleagues elsewhere.

There are two other downsides. First, most schools are charging the same tuition for a remote-learning semester as for an “in-person” semester, which seems unfair since it’s not the same experience. I can understand why they do it, as colleges are really going to be pinched for the next few years (interest on endowments lower, research accomplishments interrupted, salaries paid for workers who don’t do as much, and so on). And, to be fair, I don’t know of any university that charges students housing or meals fees when they’re not in residence.

A more serious downside is that colleges may realize, “Hey, this is working to some extent! Why not just have a greater virtual presence and downgrade the ‘brick and mortar’ learning?” That is, we could see the expansion of “virtual colleges.” While that may make lectures accessible to more people, I don’t think that remote learning will be good for traditional schools, particularly the best ones. It will simply downgrade their image and make their degrees less meaningful.

So I hope that when the virus abates, schools will go back to doing what they did before, rather than becoming more like “e-colleges.”

If you have experienced the new wave of virtual teaching and learning, please weigh in below.

61 thoughts on “Teaching and learning remotely: how well does this work?

  1. I am currently teaching my first online classes, two of them.

    My first impression was that it’s like a musician (I am one) not being able to read their audience. More than not, it’s like speaking into a void (even though I can see student’s faces, as well as answer their questions).

    My suspicion is that face-to-face classes incorporate something essential in learning, but I’m not sure what that is, nor what it’s actual effect is. Perhaps the passion and intensity of the teacher for the material?

    1. Another thought: perhaps for some topics more cut-and-dried (perhaps more technical, too?) online learning does not miss much compared to face-to-face. But in the humanities and arts, the uncertainties that arise because things are not cur-and-dried require the body language, facial expressions, vocal intonations, etc., that are fully present in a face-to-face class.

  2. I’m interested in hearing the feedback from professors. My experience as a parent with primary school on-line learning is it’s much more hit-and-miss; some is just as good, some isn’t. I think my kid definitely has to work harder to get the same level of education. He’s got to focus more and self-manage his time more. When everything is homework, you’d better be the sort of person who can self-motivate to do the homework.

    1. This is very hard for K-12 (I have two boys) and homework is now virtually everything.

      The online structure we are enduring is not normal: it’s forced and it’s in addition to quarantine. This is not normal online teaching. Maybe for college kids it is a little different, but K-12 kids need each other. I can’t imagine what’s not being learned by kids whose parents are not there for them.

      1. It definitely puts more responsibility on the parents. I’d say I’m doing a good job keeping my kid up on his Math and English. I’m doing ‘meh’ at History, Geography, those sorts of things. Spanish…not so much.

    2. The major part of my current employment is as a secondary school teacher (9-12 in the USA, STEM subjects. My I started as an engineer and moved into education in the 1990’s. I went to school near Boston).

      It is harder for the students, as they need to take a much more active role, and it is harder for the teacher, if the teacher is trying to do the job.

      Many of my students are doing a good job trying to keep up and trying to learn. Some, not so much. Overall, it is ok, but far from ideal, as I have little ability to really work with a kid when there is a problem. What would be a thirty second discussion or demonstration in person to achieve understanding is stretched over hours online, and sometimes doesn’t get there.

      My day starts at 5:30AM. It sort of ends at 2:30P, but I usually check email and assignments several more times later, as well as doing preparation for the next lesson. It is NOT the same as an online course, where there is time to prepare materials in advance.

      The first few hours of the day are dealing with overnight emails and forum items, and being sure that I have assignments current for each class- this must be done daily, as it is one of the administrative checks. We are not permitted ANY live, real-time video or audio. Video lessons must be submit in advance for admin review.

      Our target is 30 minutes for the student. We have a number that have been hit hard (I have had four on-line services in the last month. two people from the community, a former student, and a parent of a former student) by the current situation, so there are limits set.

      By 8AM, assignments need to be up and all issues of the prior 24 hours need to be addressed. Then my time is divided between reviewing/responding to the assignments from the previous day, and assigning grades where appropriate, reviewing and grading long term assignments- I have 25 students that are on research projects or internships, as well as longer term projects for other classes- doing routine paperwork that no one looks at but has to be submit and checked off, and trying to respond to student questions in a timely manner as the day goes on, so the kids can complete their assignments.

      I try to get the next day assignment set up during this time, but usually that happens after I shut down my email at 2:30. For one course- at this point essentially a CAD course- It takes about two hours to set up each exercise, 3 out of 5 days each week. For another (multivariable calculus), maybe an hour, as I am rewriting my notes in a student usable form and giving them links to online sources- the textbook is good, but there are ALWAYS things missing or approaches that don’t work for some students.

      Fortunately, one of the classes is an AP, and we had completed most of the curriculum before we were isolated in the middle of march. The updated AP cut some material off of the exam, so most of the students are ok and that class is primarily review/practice problems.

      All of this keeps me busy, so I don’t go totally nuts, but, though we are on strict lockdown (NY metro area), many people don’t get the point. I have a couple kids working ten hour days, six days each week, since they have the time now, covering for people out sick or too high risk to work (several grocery, one EMT). School work is no longer in the radar there. I have a couple neighbors with kids that are hanging with their friends all day, going around to each others houses, treating it like summer vacation. Some of my students are doing the same.

      Yes, this is a long comment. I have not addressed that teaching is nominally only 60% of what I do, though now it is 100%. (I carry an engineering practice in a critical industry, and have turned jobs away, and may so may lose it. Right now, teaching is the important part)

      Some of my students have been hit up close and personally- the older brother of one was to be the best man at the wedding of the former student that passed- but all are effected. The curricula are not tuned to remote learning, most of the kids need actual interaction, the teachers are doing the best that they can, in most cases, and the prizes, lie prom, graduation ceremonies, as the rest, are no longer on the table. The losses will NEVER be made up. My goal is to minimize the hit where I can.

      Now, it is time for me to go curl up with the cat and try to get some sleep. He is yelling at me for some fusses.

  3. Jerry- I don’t think we are going to lose face-to-face teaching. Faculty around the world have been dropped into this, and they are mostly like me. We are not very good at it. What is happening is not a good endorsement of online education.

    1. We only need a few faculty to be good at it. We’ll end up with a few big-name providers running online courses for the entire English-speaking world.

      With economies to scale, the cost to the student will be 5% of the cost of a face-to-face degree (which will become the preserve of the rich).

      There is a lot to be said for this. I’m not convinced that society benefits from the cost and time-investment of 40% of young adults obtaining a face-to-face degree. Plus, students could pursue the online degree alongside starting their career.

  4. I’m not doing any on-line classes, but my son is. He hates them with a fiery passion. He says he gets a lot less out of them, he doesn’t perform as well, and it amplifies the weakness of a weak instructor. He is seriously considering withdrawing completely from the semester, he hates it so much.

    1. A reasonable consideration for some would be to drop out for this time. In the medium term a year off (it may be that long, or longer) is not that much, really. Otoh when your son does return he would have forgotten the steps of mitosis, or the actions of the different enzymes that run DNA replication in E. coli, or whatever.

      1. Mark, apologies if you’ve been asked this before. Are you related to the Sturtevant featured in the “The Gene” series?

        1. No. But I used to be a Drosophila guy, and it was fun to give presentations at big Drosophila meetings with my name all out there.
          I did have a ‘proximity’, which is that as a post-doc the neighboring office was occupied by (the great) Dan Lindsley, and he and I became good friends. He was a student of A.H.S.

          1. Small world, and Sturtevant is not a terribly common name in my experience. My students used to ask if I was related to the coffee last, Mrs. Olson, or Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Not nearly as prestigious🤓

  5. I can only speak as someone who went to college long ago and it was all in classes. There were no home computers. I later ran into folks at work who were taking correspondents classes and I was sometimes asked to proctor their tests. Often they wanted to cheat by using the material or wanting more time. My thought was that they wanted credit for the course but didn’t do the study.

  6. I’ve been doing a fair amount of online tutoring of maths and science for the past couple of years, mostly with Chinese students who are coming to the UK and need to match their learning with our curriculum. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but I’m pretty good at it now.

    It works well one-on-one, as long as you have the main tools to hand. I usually use Skype for the actual communication, with screen sharing on, and either work with pre-built Powerpoint presentations or type as I speak. I send them copies of everything at the end of the session.

    I use Desmos a lot for maths when I need graphs, and I’ve got very handy with it – I should probably delve into GeoGebra too but I haven’t got round to it. My day job is programming the Sunflower for Science software suite, so obviously I use that a lot for science teaching.

    I find teaching larger classes a lot more challenging and I’m not convinced it works, although perhaps it’s better using more dedicated tools. I find it very hard to not be able to see if individual students are following, and you don’t have a lot of the options for teaching that you would have in an actual classroom, like assigning them group activities. One-on-one you can ask a student a question or give them some exercises to do, but it’s a lot less convenient with several students to keep track of.

  7. Even before the pandemic, the local community college offered online learning. What is weird to me about it is that they charge more for the online learning than to attend in person. I’ve watched someone taking courses, and it seems rather poor to me. Most of the instructors don’t even make lectures, they just assign parts of the book to read, and have a few notes about it.

    1. Charge ’em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for looking in the mirror twice…

      It’s a business. Call me cynical, but anything they can justifiably add a surcharge for, they will.

      This is not to say anything negative about your community college. However there are (IMO, predatory) companies out there who will offer to subcontract to universities to “help” them set up their on-line classes etc. They charge the students far more than is justifiable, keep most of the profit, and feed just enough to the school to fulfill any contractual obligation. Here’s a somewhat longish article about one instance in which the partner company bankrupted the school it was “supporting”. If some company comes knocking at your Uni’s door offering to help you get on-line, caveat emptor.

  8. My experience of remote learning is from the ’70s – a regular classroom with a 30″ b&w TV screwed high up in the corner. The professor, who had no experience in television presentations, droning on from a static position in front of a chalkboard and/or behind a desk. Fuzzy picture and poor audio made it hard to stay focused. Luckily for me, this was a temporary fix while the prof was out at a conference.
    No doubt it’s better now due to individual personal computers/laptops, high def color, stereo earphones, ability to reverse/replay. Back then only the presence of other students prevented loud snoring.
    A better solution (short of professional scripting & multi-camera production) is probably issuance of reading lists with self-tests and full on finals on return to campus. (And none of this nonsense about pass-fail and/or free credit with only half a semester of work! Sheesh!)

  9. My daughter teaches foundation phase classes. She tells me that she looks forward to the resumption of face-to-face teaching as soon as possible.

  10. Although I am not a teacher, I am a software guy who used to run a company that provides software tool for mathematics presentation and learning. I’m also a diligent observer of technology and trends in using it.

    First, I don’t view this move to online teaching as a temporary one. It’s a transition that’s been happening slowly for a long time. The pandemic will simply accelerate the move.

    As with virtually all technology transitions, there are positives and negatives. The focus initially is on the negatives. That’s very natural. Everyone wants to do what worked for them in the past and prefers to stick with whatever they are comfortable.

    The tendency will be to try to set up online equivalents of face-to-face operations. This is also natural, of course, but it misses opportunities to do something different, possibly even something better.

    There are usually positives that come from technology change. One is that most people are getting their own computer. Laptops are in short supply right now because of this. That’s a negative that will turn positive once the supply chain issues have been resolved. Similarly for internet connections. People find they are needing to upgrade their connection and that is leading to bottlenecks and capacity problems in the short-term. The upside is that, once these problems are solved, we’ll have better connectivity.

    Some have noted that they really like the additional time they have since they no longer need to commute to school. Some have noted they save on gas and transit fares. Others have noted we have cleaner air since fewer people are on the road.

    There are bound to be positives that we can’t anticipate or underestimate the importance. Since I’ve been watching Stephen Pinker’s “Rationality” lectures. We are bound to see this happen more often and it will serve to connect academia to the rest of the world. At a minimum, more courses will be recorded. I suspect the granularity of interaction between student and professor will increase. It will be easier to do office hours online once everyone gets the hang of it. Perhaps asking the prof a question will be a little like dealing with those online customer service chat boxes. Students will see “You are 5th in line. Based on average length of interaction, please expect to wait 20 minutes.” They can continue their work until they hear the “ding” that let’s them know the prof is ready.

    I could go on but I’m sure you get the gist.

    1. From down here in the non-expert seats, I agree with everything you said here.

      Something that I think could be missed is the social aspects of going to school. The camaraderie if you will. But perhaps I’m just being nostalgic.

    2. I completely agree with you in respect of the kind of training courses I am currently doing (to learn a new software product). The online courses are great and they represent a real saving for us in terms of costs (no residential costs or travel costs, cheaper course fees).

      However, I can’t agree in respect of universities. When I was a student, casual interaction with other students was a huge benefit of the traditional environment. You could sit and have a coffee and discuss the lecture just taken or the assignment to be handed in.

      I think easy interaction with other people is vital at universities.

      1. “I think easy interaction with other people is vital at universities”

        But this is true for K-12, too.

        Online courses are great for specialty training. But it sucks when it comes to human-interaction aspects of learning, to say nothing of laboratory training, performance arts, or seminar-level courses where in-person discussions are critical.

        Conferencing software can handle business meetings but they suck for open-ended discussion with fifteen people in the “room”.

        1. I remember ten years ago hearing about meeting rooms that could be rented that would have cameras, microphones, speakers, screens everywhere. Two or more of these could be used to make an online meeting experience be pretty close to the face-to-face ones. I never tried one, the internet bandwidth required was high, as was the price. Obviously this kind of thing could easily grow less expensive though it probably wouldn’t be practical to have at home.

          1. I use a similar set up at work, regularly. It’s not the same as face-to-face meetings. Maybe that’s just “nurture” and our kids will be able to use teleconferencing as completely equivalent to in-person interactions. But I suspect some of it is “nature” – that as social animals, there are psychological and emotional aspects to being with another organism that simply aren’t easily replaced via a video image and voice coming out of a speaker.

      2. Clearly some substitute for these things is needed. One should be able to mingle with fellow students online but it will take some technology as well as changes in social patterns. To extend my “look on the bright side” theme, I can imagine one benefit of online “mingling” would be that it may make it easier for people to approach each other and reduce the dating aspects. Perhaps at the end of the online lecture, there’s a way to keep the conversation going among the students. Of course, if one is really looking for a date then this is a negative. All I can say is, buddy, there are better apps for that. 😉

  11. I have three points of reference for this topic.
    First, I am converting biology labs into online learning experiences. Though difficult and not the same as “hands on” there are many resources to draw from. We won’t really know the impact of in-person vs online in this respect until this is all over. However, there have been a few studies comparing online labs with hands on and they generally have had similar outcomes with both conditions.
    Second, I am currently pursuing a doctorate in instructional technology. I have spent the past three years taking online classes while simultaneously learning about using tech in education. I enjoyed the online learning experience and I know I learned just as much if not more as I did when obtaining my MS in my face to face classes. While I will concede that teaching a very large group of students is much more challenging than a smaller group, and of course, different people will learn better in different educational environments, there has been a decent amount of research on the topic of online learning and ed tech. There is a good body of evidence-based practices that can help instructors create effective online learning experiences which facilitate the development of an online experience which can be comparable to face to face coursework.
    I think the current problem is that most
    F-T-F instructors aren’t aware of the practices, don’t have experience with the online skill set, and certainly don’t have the time at the moment to get up to speed with them.
    My university has a great ed tech department that assists instructors with online courses and I know many other institutions have this type of department as well.
    Third, I also have the experience of having a college student (my son) who abruptly has had to start taking his courses online. He hates it, but that is due mostly to instructors’ being unprepared and having problems with the tech part than in the experience itself.

    1. My experience with biology lab- and field-based courses is that students who take online versions of these topics can learn the ideas well in comparison to students who take labs and field trips in person. And when both groups of students are evaluated on their knowledge using on-line or electronic methods, they do about the same. But students working from online resources have no direct experience of the organisms or the techniques for studying the organisms, and when tested or asked to show mastery they can’t do so. “Online labs” is simply an oxymoron: we can try to transfer some of the knowledge derived from labs and field activities into online experiences that include some of the same ideas, but this is not the same experience for students, and it leads to limited knowledge that can only have limited application.

      The strongest example I can think of right now comes from the microbiology lab course taught by one of my colleagues: students cannot pass the course without demonstrating sterile technique at the lab bench in front of the instructors during a lab exam. The techniques can’t be learned from videos or text, and the expertise can’t be examined via zoom or DIY methods in the kitchen. The work-around for the course in spring semester (ended yesterday) has been for instructors to demonstrate the technique in video recordings, and for students to mimic those techniques using props at home in their own smartphone videos. But it’s all a pantomime of the real thing, and would be dangerous if it was to be the basis for certifying a student’s expertise with real microbes.

  12. I don’t think anyone likes online “learning” except companies who are in the business. But it is better than keeping everyone in class during a pandemic, and better than nothing at all. It won’t replace traditional university educations, much less grade and high school educations.

    1. Very well put and succinct.

      (My wife is a 1st grade teacher in public school and my son is a sophomore in HS, local public school. Both are distance teaching/learning.)

      I just feel very grateful that my wife an I have both retained our jobs.

      My company has instituted a blanket 80% work week (Fridays off for most groups) at 80% salary, for 3 months for all salaried workers.

      I don’t like the pay cut; but this seems like a fair “share the pain” strategy; and it beats the hell out of layoffs.

      I am looking on the bright side: three-day weekend every week! I have lots of home projects to do (and lumber). I know what I’ll be doing on my Fridays! 🙂

  13. I could say a lot, but right now I want to kvetch about proctoring exams online. We currently are holding timed exams where students are literally unsupervised. NO ONE is watching them. I do all I can to interfere with cheating, and I think I am only fairly successful at that since averages are a bit lower, not higher, and I have not seen a suspicious jump in the scores of students. But lots of complaining about not having enough time and I just have to ignore it as much as I can since I think they have time.
    I know others in my department who give more time / question and they say they see lots of evidence for cheating. Give an aspiring pre-med student a chance to cheat and at least some of them will.

    1. A real problem. We (I’m lecturing a 1st-year evolutionary biology class of 750+ students) had to switch over to an online format very abruptly, and assessment was something we had to deal with right away. An online final exam didn’t seem feasible, especially given the restrictions required by the Provost, so we weighted the remaining online quizzes (which were part of the original syllabus)so as to make up the fraction of credit remaining to be earned. We reduced the amount of time for each question and, as a matter of course, were already randomizing the distractors in each question and presenting each student with a random draw of questions from a question pool. With the increased possibility of collusion, I had to work quite hard to increase the number of questions in the question pool for each quiz, which resulted in a decrease in quality, I think, and a few mistakes creeping through.
      For the first such quiz (last week), the average was sky-high, despite these precautions. So the course coordinator, who handles the cyber-side of things, blocked access to all of the course content on our website while the second quiz (yesterday) was being written. Got some cries of distress during the period the quiz was being written (too bad, was the response) and the average came down to a lower, but still respectable level.
      The question’s going to require more work, though – I have two summer courses to teach, and the U’s declared all courses for the foreseeable future are going to be online.

    2. Short story time:

      One of the courses I am now transitioned to online uses (the student version of) a commercial package. The students don’t seen to realize that a LOT of information is embedded int he files they submit, starting with the license of the install that created the file. But also, the license of other installs that have modified it. And the operating system license and computer name of the computers this was done on.

      They have yet to figure out how I know when they cheat, but after about a week, they mostly stopped, despite the vehement denials.

      Another class, every student has a different assignment- not hard with calculus to do automatically- so to cheat effectively, they still need to understand the material fairly well.

      1. How very interesting. I’ll have to look at our software and see if it has any of these very useful capacities.
        Thanks for the tip.

        1. You might want to look to the ‘lock-down’ browser model that ETS/the college board use, as well. goog*e for “lockdown browser ap classroom” for info. Not a complete solution, but it reduces some risks.

          1. Another good suggestion, thanks. We’ve started doing that on D2L – fortunately I’m partnered with someone who is much more adept at using this software than I am.
            Now I have to learn how to do it.

      2. Sorry, but how do you do this? Which commercial package is involved?
        My sister teaches Nursing at a UK university and faces a lot of essays plainly purchased from essay mills, but has been unable to evidence that they are so.

  14. I spent several years studying with the Open University, pretty much all online. I ended up with a BSC, so, not all bad then.

  15. In the past, we tried teaching two graduate level physics classes (over a video link) with a smaller department in our state. Communication with their graduate was not very satisfactory and we dropped the attempt after one semester.

  16. Perhaps distance learning doesn’t have a good reputation in the United States, judging by PCC(E)’s dismissive reference to “e-colleges”.

    Here in Britain, we have the Open University, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was founded as a distance-learning institution offering degrees at the same level of academic rigour as any bricks-and-mortar university, but for people who had never been able to follow the traditional route to university.

    It was initially derided by academics at many of the older universities, but it made very effective use of technology to deliver lectures, from television to the Internet, and every student was (and still is) supported by a personal tutor who marked the assessed coursework, ran tutorials and offered help in the same was as a tutor at any other university.

    I’ve been a student and a lecturer at bricks-and-mortar universities here in Britain, and I’ve also been a student with the Open University. The quality of the OU’s materials, and the rigour of the assessments (both coursework and examinations), is as high as any other university.

    And employers know that a degree or diploma from the Open University demonstrates not only a mastery of the subject, but also the strength of purpose to pursue a course of study over several years whilst also holding down a job or raising a family.

    So please don’t dismiss distance learning as second-class. It’s nothing of the sort when done well.

    1. I’m a philosophy graduate of the OU, a degree taken over 6 years whilst I was working full time. I have great memories of the course material and online presence. There were a few face to face tutorials, and I loved (most!) my tutors. I think funding issues are making things more difficult for them (and reducing irl interaction), but I would still recommend it.

      Not a replacement for old style bricks and mortar long term, but proof that online can be very good.

  17. MOOCS have been with us for a while to supplement on campus learning. Many professors are also under pressure to record courses and make them available quickly after class s well as to be able to accommodate remote classes and distributed campuses. Many of my university’s rooms are equipped with VC though the ability if the prof to engage with remote learners varies. For us staff, this is nothing new especially if you’ve wandered in from the private sector where engaging with remote workers and distributed teams to get things done was common.

    1. So my point in saying all that is while things are forced right now and less than ideal, I don’t think you will see a lack of online learning in the future as it is already here and has been for years.

  18. I thoroughly agree with David’s thoughts. I retired from industry years ago (I’m not telling how many!) with nothing more than high-school qualifications. Out of boredom, I signed up with an entry-level module with the O.U. and have since gained a B.Sc. and a Masters in science. Although in my first years the courses were not entirely on-line: we had to submit assignments and get the marked results back by post, and tutorials were face-to-face, the O.U. has now gone almost entirely on-line -for cost reasons.

    In my current astronomy module (online studying is addictive – I can’t give up!), I can use, remotely, a radio telescope and an optical one, control some lab experiments and review data from Mars landers.

    Browse around https://msds.open.ac.uk/ if you want to see how it’s done.

    (I have no association with the Open University other than being a happy student.)


  19. I am teaching a small, 15 students, biogeography course this semester that went “remote” about three weeks ago. Frankly, I dreaded having to make the transition in the middle of the term, but it turned out to be less onerous than I expected given our existing tech capacities like D2L. To address one of Jerry’s points: we were told that we are engaging in “remote instruction” not offering “online courses.” Apparently, this is a distinction with a difference because real online courses have to meet a bunch of accessibility criteria like providing captions. So, given these constraints and the fact that only half my course will be converted, I am not as worried about my university going completely online as I was in the beginning of all this. Also, given discussions I have had with my own students and nieces and nephews, students largely don’t like the online format at all.

  20. It’s tempting to compare the best of face-to-face with the worst of online. But the average class in a university is typically not so engaging. I’ve taken plenty of *terrible* classes in which I was forced to sit through incomprehensible lectures given by graduate students struggling to learn English (Physics major). We’ve all listened to professors not nearly as eloquent or gifted as Jerry in presenting information. I doubt an online experience will every be as engaging as an in-person experience with a gifted, inspiring professor. But with the quality of online content available (Kahn Academy, TED Talks and similar, 3 Brown 1 Blue, etc..), listening to a weak or unprepared lecturer seems like a crime.

    I would be inclined to make the face-to-face time less frequent, and more interactive over lectures and other presentations given online. Maybe once a week, once every other week?

    I also think online discussions work suprisingly well with groups of 4 to 8. The seminars I attended in graduate school (25 years ago) would have lent themselves well to the format. (Plus, the occassional Zoomhacker uploading pornagraphy in the middle of the lecture would have spiced things up considerably!)

    My $.02

  21. I have to agree with the observation that sitting and dictating a lecture into my laptop, over a series of slides, is not the same as showing the same sequence of slides to a class and talking about them. I am currently teaching a class of 750+ undergrads (1st-year evolutionary biology)in two sections, and admittedly it’s a bit like peering into one of those battery chicken farms when you’re at the front of the hall – hundreds of faces peering back at you – but I miss the kinesthetic aspect of lecturing, even if I don’t, in normal times, get the chance to interact with many of the students. There are always a few who come up at the end of lecture to talk, and I miss that too. And recording lectures, and posting them on D2L, is a bit like writing your lectures on a scarp of paper, butting them into bottles,and tossing them into the ocean. Not much feedback.

  22. Readers might enjoy Isaac Asimov’s The fun they had, a short story of individualised teaching by computer, usually understood as a warning against the limitations of technology in learning, though given some of my recollections of schools from 60 years ago, I sometimes think the story could also be an ironic comment on thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

  23. One can only go so far with online teaching – to do it properly it requires both teacher and student to have suitable video equipment. For example :

    As a guitar teacher I’m experimenting with doing this online (with Zoom & the inbuilt camera on my imac). There are zillions of ‘guitar lessons’ online already, but they are really just lectures, and are not interactive – they don’t involve the teacher observing the student playing and then offering advice about technique/tone etc. This process is crucial if one is teaching a discipline that involves high-level motor control – such as guitar. And at the moment the technology is just not cutting it.

    But it’s nice to interact with my students again.


  24. My university moved to entirely online teaching a few weeks ago. Because of other duties I’m only co-teaching one course. We pre-record the lectures, which I have found an unnatural experience. My lectures are always interactive, posing questions to the class and gauging whether students are following along by their visual feedback. The teaching assistant has been running tutorials via Zoom and the one bright spot is that attendance is higher virtually than it was in person (I guess the students have nothing else to do at the moment). Most of the students seem to have adjusted but the almost unanimous feedback is that they want to be back in the classroom. We’ll see at the end of semester how effective this mode has been.

  25. I studied via correspondence (Unisa). I was working at the same time, so that was part of it, but I think doing it at a residential university would have been much easier.

    Its as much about having a dedicated time and venue for learning as it is about the actual studying.

    If you don’t have very good personal discipline, it is better to study at a university because you’ve got a schedule, you’ve got the lectures, you’ve got some structure.

    Correspondence can give you as good an education as a more traditional university, but it requires a lot more drive to achieve that.

    And if it is more challenging for students, its more challenging for the profs too.

  26. I can well imagine that online lectures are a drag from the delivery perspective, especially without some video assistance (and if anyone is expected to do that all on their own, they should point out to administrators how long the list of credits at the end of movies is). But from a consumption perspective, I’ve been watching some of Columbia Virologist Vincent Racaniello’s lectures like this one on vaccine development and I thought about whether I would have liked this as a student.

    The advantages are: 1) less need to take notes, or at least note-taking could be condensed to just a word or two and the time in the video, 2) you’re free to pause whenever you like, 3) you can re-watch anything you didn’t quite catch the first time – how many times did that happen while I was scrambling to write down what I heard 15sec sgo?, 4) no distractions triggered by the presence of other students, 5) considerable time saved that would otherwise have been spent getting to the classroom, 6) signage like No Food in the Classroom does not apply.

    BTW, the segments at around 52:00 in the above link, on how to develop vaccines to the more constant, less immunodominant parts of capsid proteins, is a neat approach.

  27. Some subjects are better suited to online learning than others.
    Languages, at least to a certain level, can be taught effectively by software, far more effectively than by a teacher in a classroom in my view – and I taught English overseas for many years.
    One strength of learning or training using software (in the hospital where I work, it is termed ‘media based learning’) is that the learner can go over the material repeatedly and can be supplied with revision materials at specified intervals. Better retention that way.

  28. I signed up for an online course once, and I was really floundering. I asked the instructor for help. He allowed me to switch to an in-person session of the same course. That made all the difference. I got an A in that course, and felt like I had really learned something.

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