Concerns About The Sudden Move To Online Teaching


As some schools are now responding to the spread of the coronavirus by cancelling in-person classes and replacing them with online teaching, faculty are beginning to voice concerns.

[Benjamin Rollins Caldwell, “Binary Chair 02”]

Take, for instance, these comments:

Re: the move to online teaching in response to the pandemic. This is yet another request for my smarter friends out there to tell me what I am missing here. It seems to me that the idea that teachers can just switch to online teaching is based on a belief in the general superfluousness of teaching, is it not? No one is talking about having SXSW online or playing NBA games online, or moving New Rochelle online. Because that would make no sense! To be clear, I have no problem with cancelling classes, giving students refunds, giving them their midterm grades, and making all kinds of accommodations given the circumstances. However, I think that the presumption of [immediately] moving to online classes is less an accommodation and more a giant insult to the profession—and one that I hope the profession collectively rejects: otherwise teachers become complicit in becoming mere information delivery devices that they are often generally thought to be.

That’s a Facebook post by John Muckelbauer, a colleague in English at the University of South Carolina (he granted me permission to repost it here, noting that it is not meant to be a general complaint about online teaching, but rather about the suddent switch to it).

Others have expressed concern that the coronavirus-prompted move to online courses will alter expectations about college education, accelerating and broadening the push towards online teaching even in non-emergency times, and further devaluing the multidimensional benefits of the classroom experience. (This concern is compatible with an appreciation of online teaching, which can be effective and which can bring educational opportunities to those who otherwise might not have them.)

Still others have noted that developing an effective online course is challenging and time-consuming. Universities sometimes recognize this by granting professors time and funding to put together such courses. Under the current circumstances, though, at best, universities are cancelling classes for a few days, which serves multiple purposes, including, presumably, giving professors some prep time.

On this last point, one has to appreciation the perfection of this tweet from Associate Deans:


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A Philosopher
A Philosopher
1 year ago

It’s called an emergency. The privileged handwringing needs to stop. People are going to die, and we have to step up just like everyone else.Report

TC
TC
Reply to  A Philosopher
1 year ago

Totally agree. An emergency. Students need to finish out the semester. Try to step up and help, rather than using everything as an opportunity to complain or dabble in conspiracy theory.Report

i don't follow
i don't follow
1 year ago

The sudden move to online teaching shows the superfluousness of teaching no more than the sudden move to avoiding large gatherings shows the superfluousness of large gatherings. It instead shows that the educational value lost by going to online classes is perceived by decision-makers to be less of a loss than the one associated with continuing with in-person classes in the current circumstances.

I find some of the other worries more serious.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
1 year ago

Online teaching is still teaching, so at most it may show the superfluousness of a face-to-face lecture. More precisely, it may show the superfluousness of a face-to-face lecture/discussion/whatever in the context of the rest of the course (a given content, a given set of assessments, etc.). If grades and the quality of work doesn’t change from a face-to-face course to a hastily implemented online course, that’s good information to have.Report

Arcesilaus
Arcesilaus
1 year ago

Of course we have to address the current emergency. But I think it is entirely reasonable to worry what administrators will do with this. It will be proof of concept.Report

ajkreider
ajkreider
1 year ago

Agree with most of what’s here, but there are issues.

For one, students signed up for F2F instruction, when online was likely an option. Now we’re forcing them into a kind of class that they didn’t want and may not suit their learning style. Not sure how a fair grade can be given in such cases.

Many students (of mine, at least) do not have home computers beyond their cell phone.

College-provided tutoring is going to be much less available (and effective) online.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  ajkreider
1 year ago

Right, but nobody here is claiming that moving the classes on-line on short notice is just as good as continuing them in the usual way, all else being equal. It’s just that (obviously) not all else is equal right now. So we have the do the best we can under emergency circumstances.

As far as I can see, there are 4 basic options here:

1- Continue the classes in the usual way. But this may be grossly irresponsible, depending on how widespread the coronavirus is in your community. So let’s assume that this option is ruled out and see what’s best of the rest if this is the case.

2- Cancel classes and issue refunds. The OP says this would be fine, but really it isn’t. Lots of students are counting on getting through in order to graduate, they might have jobs lined up, etc., and even if we issue tuition refunds, it will really screw things up for a huge number of people. And for some colleges, issuing refunds of a semester’s worth of tuition to all of their students would be a huge financial strain.

3- Give students grades and credit based on how they’re doing at the midterm. The OP says this would be fine too, but I cannot see how pedagogically it would be better than finishing out the semester with on-line instruction. We still have a lot of material we want students to learn, and we also want them to perform exercises–like writing final papers, for instance–that we regard are developing important skills.

4- Continue classes the best we can on-line. As people note above, this is an emergency. So yes, there are genuine issues, but everybody from the admin on down has to pitch in to work things out. Hopefully, this is not something each individual instructor has to devise on their own; at the departmental and university level, people have to start collaborating to devise a good-enough set of solutions.Report

not 3
not 3
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
1 year ago

Re: 3

There’s also the fact that some students thought, given the initial syllabus, that they had time to bring their grade up with later assignments. To give them a grade based only on their earlier work seems to be an unnecessary reversal of an agreement laid out in the original syllabus.Report

Docfe
Docfe
Reply to  not 3
1 year ago

A problem with just issuing midterm grades is that there is content to learned. Especially in courses such a 101 required class that also requires 102. Students will not have a complete foundation for 102.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
1 year ago

On (2): even if we assume colleges have no financial problem issuing refunds, and even if we neglect the problems for all the fourth-year students who will need to come back next year to finish up, there’s a huge logistical issue for the college as soon as the students do come back. Presumably that would be in fall 2020, but then the college has to manage a 25% increase in tuition needed then. That’s not at all straightforward to do without compromising teaching.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  ajkreider
1 year ago

”Now we’re forcing them into a kind of class that they didn’t want and may not suit their learning style.”

Well, I’m pretty sure not having classess at all doesn’t suit their learning style as wellReport

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

I’ve had students whom it would have suited just fine…Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

Remember to make your online teaching accessible! Lessons from disabled people and disability communities: https://biopoliticalphilosophy.com/2020/03/11/accessible-teaching-in-the-time-of-covid-19/Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

I’m not following the concern here. If one thinks (as Professor Muckelbauer apparently does) that COVID-19 means that we should suspend in-person classes, the relevant comparison isn’t between online teaching and in-person teaching; it’s between online teaching and nothing.Report

A Confused Philosopher
A Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

Since public health policy is about trade-offs, it seems we should all be asking questions like the one raised by Professor Muckelbauer. What are the risks of different policies? What are their costs and what are their benefits? Philosophers should be eager to question these things–emergency or not! I am sympathetic to the worry that a policy of immediately transitioning to on-line teaching rather than, say, canceling classes for the semester and offering a partial refund, sends a disturbing message about the value of face-to-face teaching. And faculty should be worried about the knock-on effects of those sorts of messages.

I have a more fundamental question that is related to, but distinct from, Muckelbauer’s question: what, exactly, is the justification for suspending in-person college classes at residential colleges? The primary public health justification for closing primary and secondary schools is that children are vectors and the more time they spend together in a group, the more will become infected and bring that infection home to their vulnerable (i.e., older or immune compromised) relations. But this rationale doesn’t apply to the typical 18-22 year-old residential college student. In fact, keeping college students on campus would mean that they would be *less* likely to spread the virus to their vulnerable relations since they would be spending their time on campus. Sending masses of 18-22 year-olds to spend time with their families of origin, which will presumably include many vulnerable relations, makes little sense to me. Given that most 18-22 are not going to become seriously ill, and given that the goal now is minimize the number of people who need immediate medical attention, it would seem to be far more rational, from a public health standpoint, to keep in-person classes and suggest that vulnerable members of the college community work from home.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  A Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

On the “more fundamental question”: I take it the justification is that in-person activities at a residential college provide a route for the virus to spread more quickly around members of the college – it’s just part of the general “slow the rate of spread so emergency services don’t get overwhelmed” logic. College classes (especially but not only big lectures) put lots of people in a confined space for an extended period. The less that happens, the slower the virus spreads. The goal is not primarily “minimize the number of people who need immediate medical attention”, it’s “spread the number of people who need immediate medical attention over as long a period of time as possible”. (I agree that if COVID-19 was already widespread on campus, closing it down and sending students home might be counterproductive – but that’s a reason for moving sooner rather than later on this.)

In addition, colleges have basic duty of care to their students, faculty and staff: they can’t really go around saying “we don’t really mind if the coronavirus spreads rampantly across campus, because most people on campus won’t get seriously ill” – to say nothing of the fact that most faculty and staff will be older and more vulnerable.

On the comparison between cancellation-plus-partial-refund vs moving-online: sure, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask which one is better, but I think the case for the latter is pretty good: there’s only six weeks or so left of teaching at most places, and the level of disruption to students’ educational and wider careers caused by muddling through online for those six weeks looks *way* less than the level caused by just cancelling the rest of the semester’s teaching and trying to make it up next year. The logistics of moving online aren’t that complicated. The logistics of cancellation are horrendous.Report

Confused Philosopher
Confused Philosopher
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I get that by continuing to hold classes on residential campuses the virus would likely spread among the students living in close quarters. And I understand that the goal of flattening the curve is to spread the number of people who need immediate medical attention over a longer period of time so as not to totally overwhelm the medical system. What I’m confused about is why sending a bunch of 18-22 year-olds who are very unlikely, as a group, to need immediate medical attention back to their family of origin and, in many cases, into direct contact with a bunch of more vulnerable relations, is better, from a public health standpoint, than keeping them on campus and asking those on campus over 65 or with preexisting medical conditions work from home. Assuming that having the virus confers future immunity, what we want at this point, in the absence of a vaccine, is for those who won’t suffer serious effects to get the virus so as to help slow down the spread to those who will suffer serious effects, right?

I guess I worry that some colleges are interpreting the duty to care in a short-sighted, narrow way that is more motivated by fear of potential lawsuits and the wrath of helicopter parents than a thoughtful weighing of risks and benefits.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

(a) What we want is to stop clusterings that contain lots of opportunities for transmission, period. Colleges do that: they bring lots of people together in confined spaces. The idea (and it does rely to some extent on a more general roll-out of social distancing) is that the college student who goes home gets less opportunity to spread the virus to others than the college student who stays. It’s a component in a general slow-the-virus strategy.
(b) Getting over-65s at college to work from home is insufficient. For one thing, the mortality rate for (say) people 40-50 seems to be around 0.4%, which is about the same as the annual chance of dying at that age – in other words, if you’re 40-50 and you get COVID-19 this year, you’ve roughly doubled your chance of dying. (And yes, controlling for high-risk conditions probably helps, but it’s not as if we reliably know what those are yet.) For another, the virus is not obliged to stay on campus. A widespread outbreak of COVID-19 among (say) Pitt students is pretty much guaranteed to spread to the general population of Pittsburgh.
(c) The right time to do social distancing is before most people have the virus, which (we hope!) is still true now. Yes, if you think 10% (or even 1%) of your students have COVID-19, keep them on campus. But right now, hardly any of them do. So they’re not taking the virus to their families.
(d) As the eponymous poster below points out, it’s spring break right now, so to a large extent we’re talking about students not coming back, rather than students actively going.Report

Ray
Ray
Reply to  A Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

I was wondering about that.

College students are among the lowest risk groups. If they shelter in place, and if all from higher risk groups are taken away from the scene they are at much less risk of carrying the virus to those whom it will kill.

Now they are going through airports, traveling home, having much wider contact with the elderly and those with immunosuppressive issues. So they are spreading the virus, and also *failing* to dampen the curve.

It seems much safer for all concerned to keep them there, encourage them to stay in the dorms, hang out in their rooms take classes online. Are the universities worried about a liability issue?

The policy doesn’t make sense if the goal of curve dampening is to save hospital resources. They will infect people who need those resources if they spread hither and yon.

It’s also a major inconvenience and difficulty for them.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ray
1 year ago

I’m repeating some of my comments above, but

(a) Keeping college students on campus isn’t the same as having them shelter in place. They inevitably interact with staff, faculty, and the local population. It’s not realistic to suppose that COVID-19 ends up endemic among students at an institution while it leaves the surrounding community alone.
(b) Right now, at most institutions hardly anyone has the virus. We’re sending home well people so as to slow the subsequent spread, not carriers. (The right time to be doing all this is now (well, last week probably), not two or three weeks from now when the infected population would probably have reached the 100,000 mark without control measures.
(c) Let’s not be too complacent about the health risk to the young. Yes, 20-30 year olds with COVID-19 have maybe a 2 per thousand mortality rate. But their baseline mortality rate is maybe 1 per thousand per year. Getting COVID-19 this year probably triples an undergraduate’s risk of death. Maybe it’s not the proper focus of public health, but it’s not trivial either.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

(I should have added: if ‘shelter in place’ means the students are actually quarantined, then yes, that will slow the spread. But that’s just a special case of the general thesis that if everyone sheltered in place it would spread slower. So far (outside Wuhan) no-one is advocating anything remotely so drastic.Report

Cat
Cat
Reply to  A Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

To add to everything else that’s been said about this, the faculty required to teach those in-person classes are, generally, not in the low-risk groups. Some are, sure, but we spend a significant portion of our teaching years above the ~40-50yr threshold. So, even if the students are likely to be fine (which, I agree with others, they’re really not. We ought not be expecting them to choose between bad grades and a +1% mortality rate that they weren’t expecting), the professoriate is not.Report

krell_154
krell_154
1 year ago

So, how is this exactly newsworthy?

The entire world is in a novel situation, with many unknowns. People are actually dying from this, other people have serious consequences for their health, other people are losing jobs because of the economic disruption. And we’re wondering whether the quality of online education is subpar compared to in-person lessons? I mean, c’mon. Nothing says ”ivory tower academic elite” more than this.

Yeah, some students will suffer the consequences of worse education than those studying before and after the epidemic. So what? The alternatives are: expose them to risk by continuing to hold classes; not hold classess at all. To me, it seems clear that online classessa re a better scenario than either of these alternatives.Report

Confused Philosopher
Confused Philosopher
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

I hate to break it to you, but we cannot avoid exposing people to risk in making public policy. Avoidance of risk can never be our end. Thinking this way leads people to make really bad policy (and personal) decisions. The goal is managing and minimizing risk, in a calm and deliberate manner, while avoiding panic and wrongheaded groupthink, as much as possible.

I don’t see anyone in this thread actually arguing about whether online education is subpar to in-person lessons, as you suggest. Instead, I see people raising questions about the knock-on effects of certain policy decisions. There is obviously room for reasonable disagreement here, but it is strange to me that many people’s reactions to the OP’s concern is incredulous dismissal because, hey, this is an emergency, and we should do whatever we can to avoid risk. Adopting that attitude is a good way to be blindsided by the cuts that are inevitably coming to higher education in the wake of this pandemic. Do you not understand that with the economic downturn that is likely to follow, administrators are going to be looking for ways to cut faculty positions, and pointing to “how well things went when we instituted on-line classes” is going to be the pretext many will use to cut faculty jobs? Will that be the worst consequence of this pandemic? Of course not. But it is nevertheless reasonable to think about the longterm effects of decisions administrators make that might be in their own short-term interest but not in the long-term interest of those of us employed in higher education.

Perhaps the tenured should aim to do a spectacularly bad job at on-line teaching to avoid this being used against us later!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Confused Philosopher
1 year ago

If online teaching actually turns out to work just as well as in-person teaching, it wouldn’t be a pretext: it would just be a fact. And if a college wanted to reorganize its teaching on the basis of that fact, I can’t see what’s wrong with that. (We all believe – don’t we – that a university’s function is to further teaching and research, not to provide employment to faculty.)

Conversely, if you think (as I do) that online teaching, whatever its virtues, is usually much inferior to in-person teaching, you don’t have anything to worry about: the next couple of months will make that even more apparent.

On a more serious note: university admin staff across the country are having to make extremely difficult decisions, under really fierce time pressure, with really high stakes – on the one hand, severe undermining of their institutions’ core functions; on the other, public responsibility to contribute to preventing a disaster with potentially a seven-figure death toll. And they are doing it in the face of a culpable lack of central guidance at the federal level. Maybe it’s too much to ask for charity towards them, given the low esteem that administrators seem to be held in by academics, but perhaps we could at least avoid active assumptions of bad faith.Report

Ass Dean
Ass Dean
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Thank you, David. I have always appreciated your comments whether or not I personally agree with them (though I usually do in your case). I am coming a bit out of my shell this week, so I may as well also take the time to thank you for your unwavering efforts.

Cards on the table — I do personally believe that in person instruction is generally (though maybe not “usually”) better than online, but with some serious caveats. One caveat is that some kinds of teaching are intrinsically dependent on face to face interaction (e.g. glassblowing). But another caveat is that the ceteris paribus clauses for other sorts of teaching depend very much on the variables that are being discounted in the ceteris part of the clause. Taking ordinary sorts of humanities courses as a case in point, I might grant that the best form of instruction (ceteris paribus) is Oxford’s tutoring model. But that doesn’t mean that this model is the most feasible, accessible, attainable, or sustainable for most students. I wouldn’t tell Oxford to stop doing what it does well. But I also wouldn’t want my colleagues to think that this is actually the best model for our students, given especially our inability to match Oxford’s resources to support students and faculty with that model.

In short, the question of whether online is better than face to face is not a question that should be approached through generalizations. I’ve seen good and bad versions of both of these even within the same subject matter. Brandishing the ceteris paribus clause differently, I would point out that the best online course in a particular subject will (ceteris paribus) be better than the worst version face to face. But they don’t really compete with each other in that way. The question is best for whom under what circumstances.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Ass Dean
1 year ago

I’m sympathetic to most of this.

I also think the issue is as much moving to less-interactive teaching forms as much as it is moving online per se. doing an Oxford tutorial or small graduate class through conferencing software isn’t *that* much different from doing it in person, and doesn’t much change the resources required.Report

Ass Dean
Ass Dean
Reply to  krell_154
1 year ago

Sorry to disagree with you krell, but your respondent (confused philosopher) proves you wrong in terms of what most says ”ivory tower academic elite.” Viz. the comment that “perhaps the tenured should aim to do a spectacularly bad job at on-line teaching…” Astonishing. Even as hyperbole. But there it is, plain as day.

Meanwhile, I am glad to see that this view doesn’t seem to characterize most of the responses I’ve seen from the faculty I actually work with on a daily basis. Most are bending over backwards to try to help students under a difficult and anxious situation that we would all rather not have to face. And if some of these faculty later on decide that they’d like to do more online teaching because they have found that it enhances accessibility without compromising student outcomes, I hope that those faculty members don’t have to take too much shit from colleagues who have decided that it is better to do a shitty job on purpose to protect their own preferred pedagogies against all other alternatives.Report

Professor G
Professor G
1 year ago

For anyone who hasn’t seen the chart showing the death rate following Philadelphia’s refusal to cancel a parade during the 1918 flu epidemic–and the corresponding death rate in St Louis, after they did cancel their parade–here is an article with the chart:

https://qz.com/1816060/a-chart-of-the-1918-spanish-flu-shows-why-social-distancing-works/

Public gatherings of more than 20 were banned, schools closed, people worked in shifts. Thousands of ives were saved in St. Louis with that one decision.Report

Ass Dean
Ass Dean
1 year ago

Actual bona fide ass. dean here — one who is, I can assure you, working within the admin to bring down the plutocracy. Let me confirm the speculation that almost all of the venal administrators I know are actively plotting to use this whole Covid 19 thing as a pretext for replacing all instruction with cost-effective but educationally suspect MOOCs. Indeed most administrators I am interacting with advocate also taking this opportunity to destroy the tenure system. But, rather than doing so by continuing to push for “adjunctificatio,” the new thinking within the system is that Covid provides a perfect opportunity to replace both tenured and contingent faculty with AI bots. The thinking in the circles I am in is that doing this will allow us to hire more administrators, which most administrators secretly believe is the right path forward for a neo-liberal model of education (whatever the hell that means).

I have not, however, been able to confirm the rumor that Covid 19 was actually created by evil administrators precisely as a means of accomplishing these nefarious objectives. I remain vigilant and will, of course, be sure to provide periodic updates here regarding my efforts to bring down the evil empire.Report

TC
TC
Reply to  Ass Dean
1 year ago

Yes! I am privy to the same discussions. Only let’s not leave out the added benefit that in accomplishing these nefarious objectives university administrators will also be able to provide a “giant insult” to the university teaching profession, so giant in fact that the profession will not be able to reject it, even collectively. Mwahahahaha!Report

Ass Dean
Ass Dean
Reply to  TC
1 year ago

Oh. Yes. Precisely. I forgot to mention that most of the top secret administrative meetings I am going to around covid response include both (a) discussion of how to maximize insults to faculty (and our own staff, of course, who just LOVE working with faculty around these issues) and (b) lots of twirling of mustaches and other kinds of hair along with guffaws and hearty mwahahahahahs. But, you know, that goes without saying, right? I mean that’s what administrators spend most of their time doing even when there isn’t a serious epidemic to deal with. And so why miss an opportunity to double down on that now… right?Report

SPRING BREAK!
SPRING BREAK!
1 year ago

One thing relevant to the issue of releasing hordes of undergraduates out into the community, rather than confining them on campus, is that in many situations the dispersal has already happened due to SPRING BREAK (sorry, whenever I utter that phrase, or type it apparently, it must be shouted).

So I think many administrators are in the position of already having their students out in the community and that is entering into the calculation.

As to whether schools that are not currently on SPRING BREAK should evict students from campus, is strikes me that the various cruise ship situations would be instructive, though it is true that the cruise ship population tends (I would guess) towards the older end of the spectrum. I forget where I read it but I have seen an article, penned by somebody with MD appended to their name, arguing that it would have been better to let people disembark. Can’t recite the reasoning.Report