Not Your Father’s Classroom: Why Online might Win this Fall

a busy classroom during COVID, from the professor’s view: distanced students present in safety bubbles and others online
The Multitasking Instructor by Kiki Schirr

uturists, economists, and education alarmists have been predicting a major disruption in higher education since I first became a professor. By now the skyrocketing costs of tuition and the resulting burden of student debt have made these concerns all too personal for Americans.

New tools abound to disrupt face-to-face instruction. Zoom and a host of easy-to-use competitors facilitate synchronous discussions wherever the students can connect. iMovie and Premiere Rush provide intuitive video editing, allowing professors to tape short lectures in order to shorten synchronous sessions to cope with “Zoom fatigue.” Online collaboration tools from MS Teams, Google docs, and others facilitate group work. Instructors have access to powerful integrated learning management systems, such as Blackboard, D2L, or Moodle.

Soaring costs and fast-developing technology: the stage is clearly set for classic disruption. But even in the face of the costs and debt, students and parents have thus far voted for face-to-face instruction, adhering closely to the model of university instruction that has been employed for 500–900 years.

Social distancing due to COVID forced us all into an experiment:

This spring semester professors and students had the chance to compare face-to-face with online instruction in the same course with the same professor.

It was not truly a fair test, because professors and students had as little as a week to prepare for the new mode of instruction, and many instructors were using online tools for the first time.

With the fairness caveat, the clear result of the past semester seemed to re-affirm the preference for traditional face-to-face classes.

As we await the start of Fall classes, we should have another chance to compare modes of instruction, this time online vs. face-to-face under restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This time I suspect that the perceived outcome could be quite different!

Online versus face-to-face instruction in Spring 2020

My Spring experience was fairly typical. I was teaching two classes of 30 students each that met three times a week for 50 minutes, in person. During Spring break, we were informed that due to the pandemic, all classes were to be online in the second half of the semester. We had less than two weeks to plan the remaining seven weeks of the semester.

The courses I regularly teach, social media marketing, and product innovation, are naturally hands-on, experiential courses. I employ many of the techniques of the flipped classroom — including recorded lectures and tests and readings outside class. In addition, my topics and project-focus probably transferred better than most. Therefore, my efforts to suddenly covert my courses online were likely less painful than many of my colleagues.

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

  • The loss of structure (we met synchronously half as often: due to Zoom fatigue),
  • Reduced peer-to-peer and student-instructor interaction, and
  • Some loss of immediacy — having a question answered as it comes up.

Why I love Face-to-face instruction

I acknowledge that I am biased. I enjoy teaching face-to-face and am at a university that values a personal touch. 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.

Most announced university plans for this fall seem to employ very similar techniques to comply with CDC guidelines. As I read and study the proposals it is apparent that face-to-face instruction for fall deviates significantly from traditional in-class instruction.

COVID-Blended-Distanced in-Person classes

I follow the announcements by the different universities on plans to deal with Coronavirus in the Fall on a Facebook Page hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Some schools are still deciding, but it seems that most residential universities are going to offer in-class instruction in fall, adhering to CDC safety guidelines.

A student enters a clean classroom bubble apologizing for being late due to two buses being over the social distancing limit
A student enters a clean classroom bubble apologizing for being late due to two buses being over the social distancing limit
The New Excuses by Kiki Schirr

Continuing face-to-face instruction is a popular decision; most of the constituencies — certainly students and parents, and in addition many professors, have expressed a preference for in-class instruction.

But, in following CDC safety guidelines are these schools really offering face-to-face instruction? In the era of COVID-19, face-to-face instruction has changed significantly.

Given adherence to the CDC guidelines for classroom instruction, a university in Fall 2020 is choosing between online instruction and COVID-Blended-Distanced in-Person instruction. Once again, these classes are NOT traditional face-to-face classes.

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

  • Large classes, those with 40/50 or more students are moved online,
  • Relaxed attendance policies (don’t encourage anyone not feeling well to attend),
  • Accommodations for students with pre-existing conditions that put them at-risk,
  • Serve students who don’t attend by simultaneous Zoom sessions or recordings,
  • Classes are thereby blended or “HyFlex ” — a combination of in-person and online at the same time,
  • Even small classes meet in large rooms with 6-foot spacing between students,
  • Students are required to wear masks, and
  • Professors stay behind a plexiglass shield.

I applaud the effort to protect students and faculty. But the environment under these conditions is fundamentally different from the traditional in-class experience.

Not your father’s face-to-face

COVID-Blended-Distancing changes everything. A professor can no longer wander around the class. Staying behind a plexiglass shield (1) respects distancing, (2) avoids the need to wear a mask myself, (3) allows the professor to remain in webcam range for the remote participants in the class, (4) enables the instructor to monitor remote students, BUT (5) makes the instructor feel very distanced from students.

Students will be distant from me and each other. I will not be able to effectively read body language since half of the students’ faces will be masked, and non-facial body language will be affected by the distancing. Multi-tasking by professors while teaching class. will be essential to monitor and engage the remote students on Zoom and to enforce rules including wearing masks and maintaining distancing in class.

Synchronous online or COVID-Blended-Distanced?

I look forward to future pedagogical studies of COVID-Blended-Distanced classes versus online synchronous classes. Even if the pandemic stays under control this fall — a big if! — I think online classes incorporating synchronous sessions will win the comparison.

I suspect that classes held remotely via Zoom or its competitors will prove to be more personal and encourage more interaction than face-to-face classes adhering to the CDC pandemic rules. Being able to see each other’s faces and having far fewer distractions in a synchronous Zoom class should help communication, both peer-to-peer and student-instructor. The instructor will be better able to focus on the students. Synchronous classes in Zoom or its competitors will simply be a better user experience than CDC-compliant face-to-face classes.

I believe that synchronous online instruction will outshine the COVID-Blended-Distanced version of face-to-face instruction in service for the rest of this year.

I believe that after fall classes, most students and professors will continue to look forward longingly to a return to traditional face-to-face instruction. However, given the cost advantages, the fall semester could turn out to be a tipping point for online instruction; accelerating the forecast disruption of higher education.

Key factors affecting this result will include (1) how long campuses remain under CDC rules and (2) how quickly universities and professors learn to personalize the online experience. Even if we are spared a Coronavirus disaster in the Fall, the 2020–21 academic year could prove pivotal to the future of higher education.

3rd-career marketing professor at Radford University. Co-authored “Service Innovation,” a Harvard Business Press selection.

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