Before the pandemic, my wife had planned to retire from the U of I this spring (now it has been shifted to this summer, but we'll see). I've dreaded the winters the last few years and wanted us to become snow-birds after Thanksgiving. The Econ Department asked me to teach my Economics of Organizations class again. I told them about this desire to move to a warmer climate in the winter and asked whether I could teach online to accommodate that. I was told that we don't teach undergraduate classes online. So, in this pre-pandemic setting, not teaching this fall was the equilibrium outcome. I was okay with that as I didn't much enjoy teaching last fall.
The reason for that is ironic under the present circumstances. Though I had not intended this as the outcome, the bulk of my students turned what was supposed to be a face-to-face class into a totally online course. I explain what happened in this post, Should We Offer On Campus Students Online Self-Paced Courses As A Scheduling Option? In a nutshell, I didn't require attendance nor give any grade incentive for that. Plus, I viewed the in-class discussion as the culmination of an investigation into the subject. The homework was preliminary to that. But the grade was based on the homework. There was no class-participation credit for the in-class discussion. As most of the students are quite instrumental about their grades, not attending class should have been the predicted outcome. Yet if the students themselves perceived that face-to-face instruction was much better than the online alternative, they should have wanted to come to class. That they didn't offers a revealed preference argument that the students themselves don't perceive face-to-face instruction as that valuable. But the idealist in me found this very disappointing.
There is, nonetheless, a perception that face-to-face instruction is far better that online or, if we take a more expanded view, that the full residential experience on campus is far richer than the experience of a commuting student who takes on-campus courses but otherwise doesn't interact much with fellow students outside of the time when on campus. I would argue that this is potentially true and when I was an undergrad (1972-76) I felt that potential realized for me. So I surely don't want to deny it is possible. But, I fear that potential is rarely realized. Indeed, in the Daniels piece he cites a variety of current bits of data about Covid-19, but he doesn't make any reference to the learning benefits of students being on campus versus students residing with their parents and taking online classes. He does cite information that the students and their families are chomping on the bit for the students to return to campus but, frankly, the explanation for that can be quite other than that the students will learn more that way. The families are going stir crazy with the college kids living at home. I'm hearing that from some of the students I'm still in touch with from last fall. So I don't doubt it is generally true. Yet that in itself is not an argument to have face-to-face instruction in the fall.
Now, let me get to the health issues. I, for one, am in the at-risk group. I recently turned 65. Last year I had pneumonia and a CT-scan showed some unresolved issue with my lungs. (I was to have a follow up scan this April, but it didn't happen for obvious reasons.) And, in addition, I'm overweight. So I can personalize this. But there are other scenarios to envision, particularly where the instructor is not in the at-risk category but the instructor lives at home with somebody else who is. What about that? This part of Daniels's essay raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
On arrival in August, each Boilermaker will receive a kit including face masks and a thermometer for daily temperature-taking as well as the Protect Purdue Pledge asking for a commitment to at least a semester of inconvenience, not primarily for the student’s own protection but for the safety of those who teach and otherwise serve them. I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying, but also challenge them to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work.
Who bears the risk if the students don't fully demonstrate this altruism? If it is reasonable to think that students at home now are going stir crazy, why isn't it just as reasonable to assume that for the first week or two the students will comply by the safety guidelines, but then they'll start to slip in taking the safety precautions. Once that slippage has occurred broadly, the health risk will rise substantially. If that can be forecast with some likelihood, isn't it then reasonable for an instructor to self-insure against that outcome?
How would Purdue feel if the students all came to the live class session, but the instructor came in by video and was projected on the screen at the front of the room? Would that be a viable option for the instructor?
This is the unmentioned part in Daniels' piece. There is an external perception that face to face is better. That external perception is what will allow Purdue to keep tuition as planned for this fall. With enrollments strong, this in turn will keep Purdue from making various budget cuts - furloughs, layoffs, etc. Let us note that faculty and staff are important stakeholders in the university. The budget cut scenario is one that any university leader would prefer to avoid and thus might be willing to trade off some safety to avoid the budget cuts.
But now let's drill down. Suppose I'm a faculty member with tenure, who in an effort to self-insure against the virus says the class will be taught totally online. (I will briefly describe how that would be done below.) Now suppose the department pushes back at the faculty member and says this is in breach of contract and grounds for dismissal. The faculty member is stubborn and says the course will be just as good taught totally online. The back and forth between the faculty member and the department eventually finds its way into the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. There are then copycat incidents of this. How does it resolve?
Suppose it resolves in the favor of the faculty member. Now consider the same situation, but the faculty member is an adjunct (here at Illinois we refer to such instructors as specialized faculty). As an individual the instructor has far less bargaining power than a professor with tenure. But there is a union for specialized faculty and it is reasonable to suppose the union will take up this cause. The basic argument is that the rhetoric of safety is not the same as actually ensuring safety. Counting on 18-22 year olds to act in a mature and disciplined manner across the board is overly optimistic.
I have several friends who have told me they hate to teach online. One might imagine that instructors like this would return to face-to-face instruction when the institution enabled it, especially if they weren't in the at-risk category. Would a system where instructors opt in regarding mode of instruction be sustainable, at least until an effective vaccine has been developed and broadly administered? For this fall an opt in approach is problematic, as returning students already registered for their courses earlier in the spring. But these students have already been thrown some curve balls with the move to totally online instruction after spring break. Would they readily adjust to a scenario where some classes were totally online and others offered face-to-face? Indeed in what I've been reading, most of the latter will be offered in a mixed mode where about 1/3 of the students will attend the live session, the rest will get it online, and the students who attend face to face will rotate through the semester. This seems to be the model that is emerging to ensure safe social distancing.
It seems to me odd that this is the answer now being advocated, regardless of what the mode of instruction was prior to the pandemic. In other words, it is to hold whether the course was taught as straight lecture or if, instead, it involved a flipped classroom with active learning techniques employed in the live class session. But those active learning methods typically require small group work. Safe social distancing might render that difficult if not impossible to administer. And if the prior mode was straight lecture, do we really believe that straight lecture is more effective face-to-face than it is when done online? In my class from last fall, the answer depended on student preference. There are some students who want face-to-face lectures. Those are the students who attended class in spite of the lack of grade incentive. Will such students be satisfied with this new model?
My course is intended for juniors and seniors who are economics majors. There is the occasional student who is majoring, instead, in psych, or poli sci, or soc. And sometimes there are masters students in economics. Enrollments have typically been in the high 20s or low 30s. Here is the class site for last fall. A feature of the class is that students write weekly blog posts (under an alias that I assign) and I make extensive comments on their posts. The eventual goal is for the students to think of their learning as a conversation on the subject matter, one that connects the theory to their personal experiences. The students also do homework in Excel, which is auto-graded and which they can't submit for credit till they get all questions correct, so they get exposure to the math models we cover in the class.
Were the class taught in totally online mode, I would divide the students into 4 groups. Each live session in Zoom would be with one of the groups and we'd operate in discussion mode throughout. In this case I'd make attendance in the group discussion mandatory and give credit for the student showing up. Students in the remaining three groups would be able to watch these sessions after they've been recorded, but doing so will be optional for them. I might have a participation grade for those involved in the discussion, which would be to award good questions and thoughtful comments. Other students might then watch the discussions so they get a sense of what good participation looks like (as well as to get a feel for the content covered in the discussion). About a month into the semester I would divide each group into A and B subgroups. Each subgroup would be involved in leading a session later in the semester, presenting the content to the other subgroup, who serves as the live audience. This too would receive a quality grade. It would be expected that the subgroups meet on their own to figure out how to do their presentation as best as possible. They would also have to deliver their presentation content for evaluation.
Earlier in this piece I talked about the benefits of students who interact with their peers substantially in an out-of-class setting. When I did this it was with students who lived in the same place I was living. So geographic proximity mattered, a lot, to achieve that benefit. It is conceivable that if students work in groups as sketched above and if some of those groups are effective, that bonds among the group members will form. This might then encourage perhaps virtual interaction after the course concludes or possibly face to face interaction if the safety issues are resolved by then. Lecture mode of instruction is likely unable to produce these effects. But a single course as I've sketched might not produce them either, because the interaction is insufficiently intensive. The logic here, however, is not a return to face-to-face instruction. Instead, it is tracking students in a way were they are more likely to bond from their repeated interaction.
I don't want this piece to go on and on (it could) so I will make one more point and close. The mode of instruction is tied to the perception of the value of the degree to the graduates. The fear is that online degrees will not earn the grads the same jobs that they'd get if they attended face-to-face. And if, a year hence, the safety issues are no longer a concern that thinking may solidify. In that case we're solving a short run problem only. But let's face it, that labor market for new grads will be soft regardless of the mode of instruction because of the macroeconomic consequences of the pandemic and that softness is likely to persist for some time. As I've written in a recent post, current students have taken a big capital loss on the human capital they've acquired and on the various credentials they've amassed. In this case they may just want to get through to the degree, no matter how this is achieved. Yes, the students want to be on campus rather than live at home. But, no, that's not because they clamor for face-to-face instruction.
If we can get real on this we can get through the current crisis. At least, I hope so.