If Given the Choice Whether to Teach In-Person or Remotely in the Fall…


Last week, the University of South Carolina announced it is planning to have in-person teaching in the fall, but also that each faculty, staff, and student will be allowed to make for themselves a “decision to either return or delay their return”. Other schools are considering similar arrangements. 

At some point this summer such decisions will need to be made, as course offerings will need to be settled and the physical and technological arrangements for courses will need to be planned and implemented. It will be helpful to start thinking about these decisions sooner rather than later.

So, students and faculty, suppose you had until the beginning of June—about two and half weeks from now—to report your decision to the administration. What factors would go into your decision-making?

Here are some that might be relevant:

  • one’s own risk factors for vulnerability to COVID-19
  • the vulnerability to COVID-19 of those with whom one lives or cares for
  • anticipated progress on therapies or vaccines for COVID-19
  • the anticipated spread of COVID-19 in your region
  • the anticipated enrollment in your courses
  • the likelihood your institution will be able to implement social-distancing measures in classrooms and lecture halls
  • the likelihood your institution will be able to implement social-distancing measures in shared professional physical settings (offices, hallways, common areas)
  • the level of videoconferencing and other remote teaching technology available to faculty and students
  • the degree of trust in your institution to not hold one’s decision to teach or study remotely against you
  • the extent to which
  • the level of flexibility you, your department, and your institution have such that you could switch from teaching or taking classes in-person to remotely should you feel the need to
  • the extent to which various mixes of in-person and remote teaching are available for individual faculty to deploy in their own courses

It would be useful to hear what other factors might be relevant to your decision. And what would you decide to do?

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Daniel
Daniel
1 year ago

I would teach online. I find the calculus to be very simple. We need to be able to provide online opportunities for students who need them. That requires teaching seminars on zoom. It is compatible with splitting lecture courses between online and offline sections, but I don’t have the time or resources to manage such a split class. I hope my university will at least give us a similar choice.Report

Milton
Milton
1 year ago

I am eager to return to an actual classroom, but I have a couple of non-health-related concerns about doing so in the fall.

Granting that Zoom is a non-ideal medium for teaching, I wonder: (1) is a meeting in which students are wearing masks and spaced six feet apart really better, pedagogically speaking, than a meeting on Zoom? And (2) is a meeting in which some students are wearing masks and spaced six feet apart, and other students are present via Zoom, really better, pedagogically speaking, than a meeting in which everyone is on Zoom? At least when we’re all on Zoom, I can see (most) students’ faces and we can all enjoy (virtual) proximity, and at least we’re all sharing a single virtual space. So if an in-person meeting would require masks, distance, and multiple spaces, would it really be an improvement over a Zoom meeting? I’m not sure. It might be for a lecture-based class, but I doubt that it would be for a discussion-based seminar.

Naturally, there would still be significant benefits to in-person meetings, not least of which is that *it’s an in-person meeting*! As I said, I’m eager to resume such meetings. So I would be glad if someone could convince me that the benefits outweigh the pedagogical costs, or that my concerns are not as serious as I think they are.Report

m-grad
m-grad
1 year ago

I am very worried that in-person courses would jeopardize the participation of those that are in high-risk groups. My current course has participants which are retired or have underlying health issues that put them at great risk. I dont think they would be willing to take the risk that even a class with masks and distancing would pose (in getting there, in smear infections etc.). So I would personally prefer to continue online teaching until we can be sure that there is no risk to these participants, by vaccination or knowing for certain that we can provide infection-safe in person courses that pose no non-trivial risks to participants.Report

dmf
dmf
1 year ago

let’s not forget all the support staff, janitors, secretaries, accountants, etc who would be throw into the toxic mix if faculty and students were packed back into dorms and all…Report

David
David
Reply to  dmf
1 year ago

@dmf, I think that’s fair, but it also seems unlikely that most janitors, cafeteria workers, and other support staff will keep their jobs if universities go online next year, so I’m not sure that focusing on them really lends support to moving to online education. To be sure, all of this depends on what happens with the virus and how the employment policies at different universities, but if universities are online for all or much of next year, I suspect that the support staff you mention will be among the most deeply affected. Of course, as you note, they might also be among the most deeply impacted if we’re back in person in the Fall.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  David
1 year ago

hi David, I didn’t take a position around online/in-person just asked for consideration for the lives and communities of workers who are often left out of these discussions and making a plea for their inclusion in the calculations and to remind folks of campus life beyond the classroom.
My guess is that ivy-league type endowments aside most schools can’t afford for campuses to stay closed and will open and then face being shut down as cases flare up much like restaurants and like restaurants many will fail as businesses, but measures like face-shields for all on campus can be relatively cheaply be taken so please don’t return to teach if your support staff doesn’t have PPE, testing, and spacing measures protecting them, a little solidarity goes a long way…Report

Tatjana von Solodkoff
Tatjana von Solodkoff
1 year ago

I’ve only recently started reading and learning more and more about designing online courses, and I can see a real value in online or hybrid learning, independently of the current situation. So, I’m excited to try out (planned) teaching online next semester.
I also think it might be less chaotic to teach online until we have a vaccination, simply because students and faculty can fall ill with the virus at any point during the semester and will miss a considerable amount of classes. Even if the symptoms are mild they will have to self-quarantine. So universities will have to accommodate students who miss f2f sessions because of the virus. And replace faculty who cannot teach for 2-3 or more weeks. I anticipate accommodating and replacing will be challenging and keep students frustrated for another semester. An online course in which everything is planned, recorded and provided in advance seems to be the better option. But I also like making plans and dislike taking chances, so this is just my preferred way of dealing with next semester’s uncertainty.Report

Blain
1 year ago

There is absolutely no way that I’ll be teaching or conducting Department meetings in person this autumn. People meeting inside, speaking continuously, for extended periods of time (1-3 hours) = *ideal* conditions for the spread of the virus.
See: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/05/12/2006874117

And as Milton points out above, meeting in person in a way that is minimally ‘safe’ (2 meters between everyone, masks, etc.) seems to obviate any benefits of in person meetings over online ones.Report

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
1 year ago

CHILDCARE. The fact that it didn’t figure on the initial list or any of the comments above is just another indication that academia is set up for people without children or with spouses at home.

Anyway, as long as there is no childcare available, I prefer to teach online. Recording lectures and/or facilitating discussion boards is much more plausible than delivering seminars and lectures with a toddler in the room.Report

David
David
Reply to  Elizabeth
1 year ago

Hi Elizabeth, I agree completely that childcare is absolutely critical – both for faculty and for students – but I’ve been under the (perhaps unwarranted) impression that it’s very unlikely that campuses would be open, but childcare centers and K-12 schools would be closed. If childcare and k-12 schools are not open, then it seems, as you argue, that it would be very difficult for folks with children to come to campus in the Fall. That said, judging from my own experience without daycare over the past couple of months, if there is no childcare in the Fall, teaching online will be preferable, but will still be very difficult to carry out well, while one is also acting as daycare provider, playmate, 1st-grade teacher and so on.Report

David
David
Reply to  David
1 year ago

Most workplaces don’t account for childcare as a condition for coming to work, I think? Academia is not unusual in that.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David
1 year ago

(1) I think plenty of workplaces have been accounting for childcare in this very particular context (e.g., Pitt has been explicit that they understand faculty with childcare responsibilities are going to have lowered productivity.)
(2) In any case it’s moot in this context, since we’re considering who would come into campus if given the choice, and on that basis you can figure whatever factors you like into the choice.Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

David Wallace,

You write, “it’s moot in this context, since were considering who would come into campus if given the choice”.

The OP asks what factors would play a role in one’s choice about whether to teach online or in person. For many of us, the absence or presence of childcare is THE deciding factor. We would probably like to teach in person if childcare is available; we can’t if it isn’t. Elizabeth’s point is (or should be) well-taken.

(I’m also skeptical of your impression that “plenty” of workplaces are accounting for childcare responsibilities. But I don’t think either of our anecdotal impressions is worth much at this point.)Report

David
David
Reply to  Luke Maring
1 year ago

To be clear, in reply to Wallace: when I said that “Most workplaces don’t account for childcare as a condition for coming to work,” I meant “in the United States,” not in the academy within the United States. I am always puzzled that faculty think that childcare is a need to be addressed by the university. Surely it is, across employers, but it is not addressed in banking, in law, in retail, in hospitality and food service, in manufacturing anymore than it is in the university. YMMV.Report

G
G
1 year ago

From what I read, it is not clear whether things will get better after the fall semester. I guess we may want to talk about teaching online not only for the fall but for the whole academic year. I am not sure how that would affect the budgets for universities but I really worry about my current non-tenured job if that is the case.Report

Lisa
Lisa
1 year ago

The set of considerations listed seems to presume that faculty, staff, and students all tele-transport themselves from home to the institution. At many large institutions, students commute on public transit or at least carpool. Many live at home with extended families in tight quarters. In having students interact with other students in person in an environment which is at best loosely controlled puts a lot of other people at risk and heightens the probability of community transmission. Small private colleges usually located in relatively remote locations have a better chance at meeting in person, if they are willing to tightly control who comes to campus at the beginning of term. But there is a real risk of transmission through the dorms without vigilant oversight. Moreover, I am not sure how the townspeople will feel about the intrusion of potential virus carriers into their town, which will likely have limited medical resources. There is real risk there as well. Those college kids will need to be kept on campus. The main risk is not to me personally, or even to any individual student. The risk is facilitating community transmission that can completely inundate the medical system. It seems like a real gamble to have in person instruction unless the environment is tightly regulated.Report

dmf
dmf
Reply to  Lisa
1 year ago

all too true but here in Iowa City we are basically a one factory town in relation to the university and will inevitably lose community lives (more than necessary with our craven governor) when students return to campus but without them our economy will collapse, we desperately need both student/staff spending and the taxes from landlords and all, dorms are really relatively ungovernable in terms of traffic/interactions and we are already having troubles with fraternities over the summer, the real epidemiological nightmare will be people from all over the state coming for football games, let the tailgating begin.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
1 year ago

I think Tatjana hits on the most important consideration, and I don’t think it just comes down to personal preferences. The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we can provide a quality education to our students. Although I’m not a fan of online classes, I’m persuaded that they can be done well if we take the time to prepare for them. It’s one thing to have a haphazard emergency half a semester where those of us without online teaching experience make it up as we go along. But if we’re asking students to come back for the fall, we can’t offer them another makeshift semester.

If we commit to (primarily?) online now, we have some time – as individuals, departments, and universities – to work on learning to do that well. Planning to maybe, hopefully, sort-of meet in person just seems like it requires simultaneously figuring out how to plan a new form of in-person education (that is nonetheless fully accessible to students for whom it is unsafe to come to campus) but also preparing a backup plan for the reasonable possibility that at least part of the semester will have to go online.Report

David
David
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

Hi Derek,
While it depends a great deal on the type of class (i.e., lecture, seminar, lab, language course…etc.), in general I’m not at all optimistic that online education will be very effective. Not only is the quality of education generally worse in my experience, but it also places immense hardship on those students who either do have a good environment to study at their house, who don’t have access to reliable internet, or who – to return to an issue Elizabeth raised above – are charged with childcare or any number of other household duties. Of course, none of those considerations matter too much if the alternative is simply not offering courses or endangering ourselves, university staff, and our students, but I think it’s important to keep in view the real educational costs of shifting to online education.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  David
1 year ago

David,

If it turns out to be safe for (some) students to live on campus, then you can have the classes be online but still have some students living on campus, experiencing an attenuated version of campus life and using campus resources to access quiet places to do online classes.

As you say, the question is a comparative one – what is the alternative? And I honestly don’t know what alternative is being proposed by those colleges that say they will be offering in person classes but that no students or faculty will be required to attend them if they don’t want. So I have in-person classes, but all the lectures are recorded, attendance is optional, there are no non-optional in-person assessments… It just sounds like wishful thinking.Report

David
David
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

Derek,
I’m not sure the hybrid model you describe is so difficult to pull off, though it of course depends on the sort of technology available and would also require a fair amount of planning. For instance, just because attendance is optional in a sense wouldn’t have to mean that you couldn’t expect to know in advance who was taking the class in-person and who was taking it online. One challenge would be that while recording a class doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal, simply posting a recording of, let’s say, an effective in-person seminar or lecture would likely not be the best way to approach the online component of the course, so it might be necessary to, in effect, offer two largely independent iterations of the course, one online and one in-person.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  David
1 year ago

David,

I’ll leave it as exercise for the to decide whether it’s wishful thinking to suppose that designing and implementing two distinct iterations of every course you teach wouldn’t be that difficult.Report

David
David
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

Derek,

I think you’re right that in pretty much any scenario, a hybrid model is going to require more faculty time. That said, I’m not sure I see why, in general, faculty would, as you suggest, need to offer a distinct online and in-person version of *every* class class. At least at my university – but I can’t imagine we’re alone in this – faculty in high-risk groups are going to be offering courses online whereas most of the rest of us are expecting to offer courses in person. Aside from courses required for graduation, I don’t see why, as a rule, each *in-person* class would need to be accompanied by a distinct online course. To be sure, it will be important that certain required courses are available in each format, but that doesn’t mean that every course will need to be offered as both a full-blown online and in-person class.Report

Tatjana
Tatjana
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

Yes, thank you, Derek, it’s important to remember that just because classes are online does not mean that students are stuck in the house. They can even form small learning groups in which it will be easier to practice social distancing. They can study in the library. They can go to a cafe. A significant amount of students will study in their rooms. -on or off-campus.
And if courses are mostly asynch even if students fall ill and fall behind they will still be able to make up for lost learning time once they‘ve recovered.Report

G
G
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

I agree that “The question we should all be asking ourselves is how we can provide a quality education to our students. ” But I think it also depends. It is an urgent question for universities for sure. But for individuals, especially those who have been underpaid and exploited by universities for years, to think about the above question *could* lead to more unpaid work during the summer, not to mention that some of us do not even know when we will be laid off.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  G
1 year ago

You’re absolutely right, G. If you’re already being exploited by your university employer, please don’t compound that exploitation by doing a bunch of extra work for free.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 year ago

For me it comes down to costs and benefits and when you look at it that way I think online is pretty clearly the right option, or at least it is for philosophy classes. Now there are certain classes you simply can’t have online in any sort of effective way. In the community college system auto repair and classes in health professions come to mind. In those cases, the college needs to have an in person class though it should move heaven and earth to make sure that they’re as safe as possible (i.e. masks for everyone, reduced enrollments, perhaps scheduling changes to move them up as far as possible toward summer or early fall when the virus is likely not be as bad). The labs in science classes also come to mind. Despite what some geniuses in admin at my old employer the University of Tennessee thought, you can’t have a decent chemistry, biology, or physics class without labs. Though again the labs should be done in such a way as to minimize risks. And I don’t see why the lecture portion of these classes couldn’t go online.
But consider philosophy. Granted there may be a loss if we go online. I personally think that there are losses in online philosophy classes, or at least there are when we replace smaller in person classes with online classes, but that online classes are much better (or can be much better) than philosophers tend to give them credit for. (Honestly, I’d really like to see people cite more hard data on this rather than going on their personal feelings or opinions. For what it’s worth the data I’ve seen is mixed but tends to suggest online learning can be very effective). But seriously how great will the loss be? When it comes to the giant auditorium 300 person+ lecture, then likely negligible to non-existent. What do you really gain by having the prof 100 feet away reading through his powerpoints that you lose with a recording of that same prof online reading through his powerpoints? The same goes for the 20-40 person discussion section lead by a grad student. Now when we get to the sort of smaller philosophy classes you find at SLACs and community colleges I do think there is more of a loss. Students might learn philosophy about as well or just as well online but there are soft skills like how to have a civil face to face discussion with people you disagree with it can’t replicate. And students likely won’t build the same relationships with each other or their professors in online classes that they often do in in person classes. But even here we have to ask ourselves whether the risk is worth it. Many people here and in other discussions seem to act as though COVID is only dangerous if you’re 60+ or have underlying health conditions. Which is simply not true. Even for a 20 year old it’s dangerous stuff. Having COVID literally doubles your chance of dying in a given year no matter what your age. We’re also seeing that it causes strokes in younger people and auto-immune disorders in children. I’m squarely in the demographic of people likely to have a “mild” case of COVID if I get it. But I don’t want to run that risk. Let’s say it has only a 0.2% chance of killing me (which is very much a low ball estimate). That’s still much much greater than the flu. If you don’t see how bad that number is just ask yourself how much someone would have to pay you to take a gamble where you only have a 1/500 chance of losing but if you lose you are waterboarded for days or weeks before being drowned? That’s a pretty accurate description of dying from COVID from what I hear. Moreover we have to worry about students and faculty bringing this stuff home. My wife has high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for COVID complications, and I’m absolutely terrified of bringing it home if we do have in person classes. How many students have roommates, family members, or significant others who have risk factors? How many of them have risk factors and don’t know it? Beyond the bottom line, which I won’t mock or dismiss because I do like getting paid, I can’t think of a compelling argument for why philosophy classes need to be in person. And even if I won’t mock or dismiss the bottom line it doesn’t seem big enough here to justify the risk.Report

rld
rld
1 year ago

Philosophy faculty at my school have been given the option. I typically teach 6 courses a term (one of them is overload). This past winter I put in my request for 3 online course and 3 on-ground courses for the fall. We’ve been told that if we’d like to have our previously-scheduled on-ground courses converted to online, we may do so. However, these converted classes must be taught synchronously and in accordance with the previously established meeting times. Note, the synchronous requirement does not apply to our usual online courses (just the previously-scheduled on-ground courses being converted to online for the fall term). Alternatively, if we choose to have our on-ground classes kept on-ground, those classes will be capped at 9 students to avoid having more than 10 people in a classroom. I’m personally not a fan of synchronous online classes, so have opted to teach on-site. Of course, if there is a serious flare up where I live, I’m sure all my courses will be forced online.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
1 year ago

The Atlantic just published a really excellent article on this by Michael J. Sorrell the president of Paul Quinn College. Two passages are worth quoting at some length.
First:
The fear of the fiscal damage associated with empty campuses in the fall is the primary reason that schools are exploring every option to avoid that possibility. Many schools literally cannot afford an online-only existence; students would not want to pay the same amount for such an experience, but charging them less would lead to bankruptcy for some institutions. Exploring options to avoid financial ruin does not make you a bad leader. On the contrary. However, if a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.

Second:
Any path forward—for higher education and for everyone in society—requires telling people this truth: Life is going to be hard for the foreseeable future. We are in the early stages of a pandemic that we do not yet fully understand. What we do know is that this crisis was mismanaged from the start. As a result, every aspect of our lives is going to be changed for far longer than we are comfortable. Moreover, in all likelihood, our rush to reopen is going to set us back in our fight against COVID-19 even more. The sacrifices that we must make to restore order and safety will make us a stronger, more resilient society. For college students, those sacrifices will include long periods of remote learning. For institutions such as mine, the sacrifices will necessitate new financial models, including reduced tuition and fees. We will also need to change the way our students compete athletically, engage socially, and grow emotionally.

The whole article is available here:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/colleges-that-reopen-are-making-a-big-mistake/611485/?utm_content=edit-promo&utm_term=2020-05-15T10%253A00%253A24&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=the-atlantic&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2BBo7sODznS-SyNz86VC3jikojrv8kUktY05twDm_2Udp6XAWoCxHm6NcReport