Friday, July 3, 2020

You Must Choose to Decide: Going Online in a Pandemic

There has been discussion for weeks now about how to manage the fall at institutions of higher education in the US and Canada.  I am quite lucky in that Carleton made the smart, responsible choice early so the focus has been on shifting resources to helping us go online and on us taking the entire summer to prep for the fall.  The fall teaching online experience will be better than the rushed move in March.

Other places are dithering, are suggesting that the fall will go on with some modifications, and some even are imposing pretty punitive rules that put professors in difficult and even dangerous positions.  Inspired by a great thread today by Danielle Lupton, let me explain the ordering of the choices and tradeoffs and then steal from Laura Seay about the tuition challenge.

Yes, face to face classes [F2F] are better than online classes, holding everything else constant.  Sure, there are folks who love delivering classes online and do it well, but most profs prefer to engage the students in person for all kinds of reasons--body language helps signal to the prof that the content is being delivered well or not, it tends to be far more interactive, one can change things on the fly more easily, etc.  But we cannot hold all else constant in a pandemic.*
* There are some who argue that the disease is not so fatal for young folks so let's just roll with it.  I have two responses to this: a) in a class of 600 students, maybe one will die due to the virus.  I guess that is no biggie?  b) this disease can be brutal even in mild cases, so let's not be so blase about "hey, few deaths, so what?"
  • Communicating through masks makes lectures harder to understand and student discussion much more difficult.
  • Distancing does the same.  The spaces that may be used, as Danielle points out, often have awful acoustics--gyms, for instance.  
  • Will have to do whatever we do F2F in ways that can be taped and uploaded so that students who can't attend in person due to visa problems, travel restrictions, home situations, etc can still take the class.  This, of course, means doing more work, essentially producing two versions of the class.
So, F2F in a perfect world > Online in a pandemic > F2F in a pandemic.

What happens if/when there is a major outbreak on campus?  Will the universities and colleges just continue on or will they send everyone home and move to online?  My bet is the latter as all the liability waivers will not stop students and profs and staff from fleeing a major outbreak.  So, if the plan is to be on campus, the plan is really to repeat what happened in March: moving quickly online with little prep.  Oh, and having helped infect a community where the school is based and then infect the communities to which the students return.  USC has already switched to going online as the cases in and near LA are skyrocketing.  Better now than September or October although May or June would have been better still.  Just like everything else with this virus, acting early is better than acting late.

Well, shouldn't students pay less tuition since they are not getting the same education as they would be in person?  As Laura rightly argues, teaching online involves more costs, not less.  Carleton is hiring staffers to help profs move their courses online.  That costs money.  The profs are going to be working more, not less, for the same amount of money (or less since schools are cutting retirement benefits).  There is more preparation involved with teaching online--I have already done more course prep this summer so far than I do in an average summer--as we need to figure out how to deliver the content, we need to record videos and make sure they don't suck, we need to figure out additional materials, we need to design new assessments (requirements to be graded), and so on.  The students are going to need just as much or more online materials--so universities have to continue to pay for subscriptions to journals and presses as well as media of all kinds.  Info tech staff will have to be paid and probably supplemented.  And, yes, universities will cut staff who feed students who aren't there and to maintain the physical plant, but can't eliminate all of that entirely since a lack of maintenance will undermine the investments made in all of that stuff for when students return.

The key is this: this thing is mostly temporary, lasting a year or two, depending on how badly the US screws it up.  The only way out is through.  There should be more financial aid for folks who can't afford universities in the middle of a pandemic recession, governments should shift more resources to higher ed.  But since they aren't doing the right stuff for k-12, I have my doubts.  I am more certain that a number of colleges and universities will go bankrupt and cease to exist as a result of the pressures of this pandemic combined with bad decisions of the past, changing demographics, and all the rest.  One way to make sure more schools die is to demand cuts in tuition.  That does no one any favors.

We are stuck in a bunch of related collective action problems where moving first is hard, where individually rational decisions can lead to collectively bad outcomes.  Governments were built to help finesse such problems.  Alas, many governments are failing to do what is needed.  They aren't working hard to provide K-12, which means the economy can't really return to what it was.  Governments aren't working to help universities weather the story--they are cutting support instead.  We are, in short, eating our seed corn, which is a dumb way to behave.

There is probably good research and good lessons to be learned on all of this stuff. Where is all of that stuff?  At your local university.

And as always, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice:

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