Notes from a Physically Distanced Classroom

by Harry on August 15, 2020

We tested some teaching strategies in a physically distanced classroom today. We filmed the proceedings, but obviously the film isn’t ready yet, so here are some initial thoughts.

First a caveat. The room was great: a room designed for learning. Good acoustics, screens on the walls, comfortable chairs which move easily and silently, and 6 tables each of which would, in normal times, seat 7-8 students. So, the best case scenario (I want to get us into some bad rooms soon).

Here are the rules. Everyone must wear a mask; everyone must remain 6 feet apart at all times, and there was no amplification (not a problem, in fact, in this room — I understand that in other rooms some sort of amplification will be provided). No moving of furniture is allowed, but moving students is, as long as they always at least 6 feet apart.

I’m hesitant about drawing conclusions, especially given how good the room was, but, for what it is worth, our whole team was surprised by just how well it went, and I’m much more optimistic about what my students will experience in the Fall than I was yesterday.

We ran the think-pair-share after watching a short video, and recorded two pairs; but, crucially, everyone in the room had to be talking at the same time. Basically, despite masks, and despite background noise being higher than normal (because people are speaking through masks trying to make themselves heard) almost all the students reported no difficulty hearing their partners, and those who did report difficulty said that they could hear, it was just more work than usual.

We then did a fishbowl. Here’s where the benign design of the room may have been a help. We stationed the fish (those who would be talking) at the end of each table, meaning that they were, in fact, relatively close to each other (but more than 6 feet). Only they were allowed to talk for the first 12 minutes, and then others were allowed to interject. Of the ‘fish’ two were quiet speakers, and it was tough hearing them: I found myself having to ask people to speak up or repeat themselves a little more often than in a regular small class, but not more often than in a large lecture hall class. But the others: the masks were not a challenge either to speaking or hearing. The conversation flowed as well as I would expect in a regular class with those sorts of numbers (and, bear in mind, that in normal circumstances students aren’t inhibited by being filmed, or by having a bunch of older adults they don’t know watching them). After the fishbowl nobody reported difficulty hearing or speaking.

One of the students is hard of hearing. I unintentionally placed the her close to the middle of the room, which I now regret a little bit: she reported having no difficulty hearing at all (she was also quite close to one of the quiet talkers, whose voice she is accustomed to because they are friends), but perhaps if I’d placed her at the edge of the room it would have been harder. (Just to be clear, my regret is because I want to see what worst case, as well as best case, outcomes look like). Also: she had observed to me ages ago when we were discussing what all this would look like that she can’t read lips at all, so maybe others who are more reliant on lipreading would find the presences of masks more disabling than she does.

Here are some very brief initial takeaways that may be relevant if you get allocated a good enough room.

  1. You'll have to remind students to speak up pretty frequently.
  2. You’ll have to remember to speak up yourself.
  3. Think even more carefully than usual about the use of the room: where you’re going to speak from, and where the students are.

  4. Even in regular times I am startled how many classes I observe in which the instructor has clearly not made choices about where it makes sense for students to sit, so they are scattered in inconvenient ways that don’t facilitate good interactions. Figure out where you want the students and make them sit there (within whatever constraints you have been given). Tell the students why you are making them sit where you’re making them sit, and be ready to move them again if you’re not satisfied with the results.

  5. Talking through a mask is really tiring. It’s tiring for them as well as for you. My standard class-length is 75 minutes, and I usually abhor a break, but I might make an exception this semester and next.

By the way, I am quite aware that everything might be online by September 12th. That makes me all the more keen to make the most of what little time we might have in an actual room together, and doesn’t make the exploration of physically distanced learning any less interesting.



John Quiggin 08.15.20 at 3:46 am

How many students in total ? As I visualise it, 2-4 per table, which would imply 12-25.


faustusnotes 08.15.20 at 7:15 am

Harry I would recommend adding a pump dispesner of hand sanitizer to the rules. Masks are useless, as Japan’s experience has shown, or at least nowhere near enough in and of themselves, because people touch surfaces and touch their face and their own hands and gear. You can’t guarantee they washed their hands before they came in, but sanitizing their hands every time they enter or leave the room will help. Bear in mind that a person who is infected with covid-19 will have coughed on their own hands at some point in the past few hours and will then place them on everything – chairs, tables, door handles, etc. If you move students around they will touch desks and surfaces others have touched. Masks don’t save you from any of that, so add hand sanitizer.

Hospitals don’t control infection by masks alone – they have rigorous and constant hand hygiene. So I would add a dispenser at the door and require everyone to use it everytime they enter or leave the classroom.


Neville Morley 08.15.20 at 7:17 am

Hmm. Interesting, thank you. I do always have breaks in the middle of my 100-minute classes – but that’s an opportunity for students to chat informally, get coffee, take toilet breaks etc., and I’m not sure how that’s going to work under social distancing rules. On the other hand, most likely scenario is that we have max 50-minute in-person face-to-face sessions, so it shouldn’t be an issue.

The main problem is that I can think of perhaps two or three teaching spaces in the whole university that offer the facilities described, especially as regards furniture…


ph 08.15.20 at 7:28 am

Congratulations, Harry. Sounds like you’re well-prepared. Best of luck.


Harry 08.15.20 at 2:05 pm

JQ — 18 plus the instructor (3 to a table is the limit). I don’t think that Think-Pair-Share would be very different with larger numbers up to our limit (I think that all classes over 50 are online).

Faustusnotes — thanks — I actually think that is in the rules too, but the dispensers aren’t yet up everywhere because we have another 2 1/2 weeks to go (though everyone did clean their hands as they entered the building). Also — extensive use of wipes apparently. I think we should probably add “remind students to clean their hands before and after class” to our protocols.


Derek Bowman 08.15.20 at 3:49 pm

Harry, doesn’t the need to sanitize surfaces create problems for moving students around in the room? Won’t students need to re-sanitize their workspace each time they move?

More generally I can’t imagine the chaos of trying to move people around with six foot distancing (especially in the “bad” rooms you’ll be trying next). How much class time do you lose to that kind of moving?

I don’t think we’re allowed to move students around like that at my school because we’re meant to keep fixed seating charts for possible contact-tracing purposes.


craig fritch 08.15.20 at 6:46 pm

I am a long-retired elementary teacher. Thinking back to my days, I cant see how the interactions we began to encourage can be continued. Going back to lectures & writing on the blackboard ( see what I mean about “my days? ) is still better that working online from home. The kids mostly need to be in a social situation again. Let the new methods slide.


Anonymouse 08.16.20 at 12:29 am

This is excellent news.

It has been decades for me since I’ve taken a class in person. I doubt think one-time lectures count.

I’ve recently, for some strange reason (grin), taken an on-line course. As good as the lecturer was; and as good as the reading materials were; and as good as the assignments were … in-person was much more effective. IMHO

As long as you can stay safe, I’d recommend in-person over online.

Just my $.02 here.


John Quiggin 08.16.20 at 1:35 am

The economics of university education in Oz are such that courses with less than 50 students aren’t sustainable. We’re doing all lectures remotely but with tutorials (20-30 students) in person.


Sashas 08.16.20 at 5:17 am

Did you simulate entry/exit? And if so, how did it go? My experiences from non-pandemic in person teaching were that the most crowded moments occurred when one class was exiting from a lecture hall and another getting ready to enter it.


faustusnotes 08.16.20 at 5:42 am

Harry, I’m interested in why you want to make the transition back to in-person teaching, and what is so important about doing it that it makes it worth the risk? I just wrote a blogpost about the benefits of online teaching and I’m intrigued as to why people want to end it. People say they prefer in-person teaching but I’ve yet to see anyone elucidate the reasons why.


Harry 08.16.20 at 1:17 pm

Sashas — yes, we did. With small numbers (which is all we shall have) its not difficult. Its worth emphasizing again that all our large classes will be online, which frees up all the large lecture rooms (which tend to have more lobby/corridor space around them); we have also spaced the classes out more (so we are having more classes in the late afternoons/evenings, on Fridays and even on Saturday) so as to manage the flow of people.


Harry 08.16.20 at 1:50 pm

Thanks faustusnotes — that’s very interesting. To be clear, for the reasons you give I pressed enthusiastically for putting the larger lectures online, and I think it would be just great if they never came back into the physical classroom even after the pandemic is over. (I think it would be great — I’m not at all convinced that we’ll get traction for it).

But a great deal of learning happens through high intensity interactions between students and instructors and among students. Even if this could be done online under good conditions, we can’t do it here, with our technologies at scale. Most basically, most students don’t have good enough internet connections to sustain such interactions. I don’t! –we upgraded to the best internet connection we could buy at my house, and it still glitches out unpredictably when I’m on a call. Most of my students have much worse service (and a good number are in rural locations where the best service is worse than here). The problem is upload capacity, which is low even with expensive services. Even if that were sorted out, and even though I have been practicing in various ways throughout the summer, online video discussions just do flow less well than in person discussions. Of course, that is almost certainly partly (maybe even mainly) down to lack of skill on my part. But: I think I’m above the median when it comes to the amount of time and effort that I have spent trying to develop my skills during lockdown. So I’m not optimistic about the relative value of online compared with in person. (Especially now I’ve seen that in person can be quite benign).

There’s also an important issue about personal relationships. The periods before and after class, and merely the physical presence of the instructor, the ability to catch his or her eye, and share a moment of amusement or enlightenment, encourages intimacy which is much more difficult to achieve over zoom. Many students need that, and they need it not so much for their academic learning of the material I’m teaching, but because it makes it easier for them to talk when they’re having the kinds of problems that interrupt or derail teaching. I realise that without in person office hours this is going to be difficult anyway, but I believe that in-person classes with small numbers will make it easier than it would be on zoom.

I’ve seen a lot of raw data from surveys of students in the spring, and have probably talked to even more students than I’ve seen data from. What happened after we went online was really very bad educationally. I think the fall will be better, but I don’t think it will be close to normal. Most students I know have one in-person class in the fall; none have more than two (and I know for sure that many students have none).

All that said — many of the advantages you cite in your post chime very well with the experiences students have reported to me about the STEM lectures taught by their better teachers, and I’ll use it when agitating for more lectures being online even in normal times.


JimV 08.16.20 at 2:16 pm

I taught a yearly lecture on Eigenvalues and Eigenvectors for the General Electric Advanced Engineering Course years ago. I used a few mathematical shortcuts after informing the students of them but not deriving them. In my first lecture a student said he didn’t see how one of them could work, so I went to the blackboard and derived it for him. I cite this as an example of things that can be done on the spur of the moment in a in-person lecture which might not be possible in an online course without a lot of technology. In the lecture room I had a wall of blackboards about thirty feet /10 meters across, and used every inch of it, filling out an outline on the left side as I went along. (The students also had lecture notes for personal reference, but I think it helped to see everything on the blackboard rather than a page at a time.)

For a completely “canned” lecture I don’t think in-person vs. online would matter, but there is more scope for unplanned interactions in person, I think. (I suppose such interactions could be bad as well as good though, e.g., a shooter.)


Omega Centauri 08.16.20 at 3:39 pm

Sounds very COVID risky to me. If fine aerosols realy are an important means of spread, then masks and six feet won’t cut it, as these can hang in the air for a least an hour and get to very corner.

Cleaning and hand sanitizer give false security. A study of train passengers, showed significant risk of spreading three rows away, but almost none for people who occupied the same seat after a positive person. Of course there is no real agreement among medical professionals as to the actual risks of different transmission modes.

Now I am thinking from a US perspective. And we have both a high caseload and poor attitudes among many. Too many videos of large un-socially distanced “parties” among students
to have any confidence that US students will follow the rules.


Harry 08.16.20 at 10:30 pm

Omega Centauri — maybe. We have an industrial hygiene team scrutinizing every recommendation, and setting various rules and constraints. AS you say, medical professionals don’t agree about all the risks. From what I can tell we seem to be among the more risk averse of those campuses that are maintaining some in-person education.

For what its worth I think that by and large students will more or less obey the rules that the county health officials have put in place, and that they will more rather than less obey the rules we have set on campus. We’ll see. It’s certainly more risky for me to be in person than not, but I’m now convinced that my students will learn quite a bit more if I am in person than not, and the rest of my life is basically as low risk as can be.


faustusnotes 08.17.20 at 2:26 am

Harry, thanks for the reply. Regarding the technology issues I’m just surprised, because we have students in low-income countries who are able to handle the required load (though they drop out occasionally). We have a partial solution for this (and the need to have a computer at all) – we have a computer room with zoom on the computers that students can use if they don’t have the basic required equipment, and most Japanese universities also have a cheap computer supply system for students. In general in urban Japan there is no problem with internet – the concept of having to “upgrade” is kind of alien in any Japanese urban area of more than maybe half a million people. But these kinds of problems will exist regardless of the technology – they’re problems of inequality that universities have always had to deal with.

Regarding the intensity of personal interactions, I’m not convinced by this. My role-playing group hasn’t met since February and we’ve completed one campaign and started another all online, and the intensity of personal interactions in a typical RPG session (which is also much longer than a lecture!) is pretty high. Maybe my memory of university undergrad tutorials is borked but I don’t remember them ever being more intense than a good RPG session! So I wonder if this is a fundamental problem or just one of acclimatization.

I think the issue of student support and mentoring that you raise is a big one. I have partially addressed this by starting my lectures 15 minutes early and having students just hang together with me for that 15 minutes. Typically this involves getting updates from the overseas students about their covid situation, telling a dumb story, complaining about the weather, getting feedback on class etc. We also have set up a casual zoom meeting once a week that is run by TAs without a professor present. But our school also has a long-standing mentoring system and in my experience the problems you identify students as needing help with would go directly through the mentors. But our student body is adult healthcare workers who aren’t shy of using institutional structures to get help, so it might not be appropriate to a younger and more vulnerable cohort.

I think you’re right about the difficulty of helping students with personal problems over zoom. I haven’t encountered that yet but I’m sure it’s going to be unpleasant. However those one-on-one meetings are the least risky form of interaction of all the ones we’ve identified so it may be possible to still have them, especially if the university is willing to prepare a partially outdoor, private and well-ventilated space. A garden! Many universities have cloisters that could be ideal for such a situation …


faustusnotes 08.17.20 at 2:33 am

JimV, I think there are now pen-and-paper type systems for tablets and computers that are affordable and can be linked up directly to zoom, so these kinds of mathematical discursions should be possible. It’s also possible they’ll be improved, because there is no space limit and no need to stop and clean parts of the board to continue. My memory of blackboard maths was that a) cleaning the boards broke the flow of the proof and b) if the prof had missed something or had to explain somethign from a past part of the proof it was often gone, so they had to improvise an explanation. With a software blackboard you can just scroll back. Also you can make extra pages to add proofs of related tools you’re using if a student is confused by something, and if necessary you can go back to a previous lecture and pull up a previous proof to highlight something that was discussed before.

back in the day a prof would have to say something like “you remember when in lecture 3 I provided a proof of the blah blah, and in the middle section of that proof we have to do this trick? Well then here we’re doing a related thing like so …” With the proper online tools you should be able to pull that proof out and show it exactly, and show how it links in.

Rather than seeing online teaching as a downgrading of a teaching system that was as good as it could be, I think we should recognize that the way we historically have taught has been limited by the physical infrastructure available to us, and we should be looking to use the new infrastructure to improve that teaching, not assuming it must be a step down. The idea that the internet and online interactions are ersatz reality needs to be dumped – it may have been true in the early 2000s but it certainly isn’t the case now. If we approach this right we can use the experience of the pandemic to improve our teaching, to find new tools to enhance our teaching, and to reduce the cost and difficulty of maintaining the academy – which will hopefully make it more accessible to a wider range of people.


nastywoman 08.17.20 at 6:54 am

”Rather than seeing online teaching as a downgrading of a teaching system that was as good as it could be, I think we should recognize that the way we historically have taught has been limited by the physical infrastructure available to us…

as it didn’t make sense anymore – in this century –
that all these students of a so called ”Higher Education” are commuting –
(like Bankers into Manhattan) –
Or even having to move – where their Universities are – and paying ALL this money for commuting –
and moving –
and rent – if you now can buy Virtual Reality Gear for a minimum of such senseless costs – and get together in a way –
where – especially teaching philosophy – might become very… ”philosophical”?


Sebastian H 08.17.20 at 10:00 pm

” If fine aerosols really are an important means of spread, then masks and six feet won’t cut it, as these can hang in the air for a least an hour and get to every corner.”

This is where we the need to approach science empirically is crucial. We empirically know that masks cut transmission about 85% and that THREE feet distance cuts transmission about 80%. Now it is true that we don’t have as good a handle on the time factor, so I’d want decent ventilation. But when we don’t actually know good theory, but we have good facts, we need to reason from the facts–not just speculate from the worst possible theories.

Similarly people love the table wiping stuff because it is noticeable. But worrying about physical pick up from surfaces to the hand is pretty much a hold over from before we knew anything about the disease.


Derek Bowman 08.17.20 at 10:59 pm

You say, “For what its worth I think that by and large students will more or less obey the rules that the county health officials have put in place, and that they will more rather than less obey the rules we have set on campus.”

What is your basis for this confidence? Is the behavior of your student body significantly different from the behavior of students at other universities? At my school, we already know that under normal conditions students regularly violate conduct rules and laws governing off campus parties, including, e.g. underage drinking. Indeed we know from an unauthorized, unofficial graduation party last Spring that they don’t follow masking and social distancing rules. It looks like these same predictable problems have plagued the student body at Chapel Hill, leading to its abrupt closure:

““It has been heartening to hear reports from faculty and staff and to experience for myself the excellent compliance on campus this week,” the provost, Blouin, wrote Thursday. “Our goal, certainly, is full participation both on campus and off among all members of our Carolina community.”

But they were deeply concerned about gatherings off campus. The UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor, Guskiewicz, wrote a letter recently warning fraternities and sororities and other groups that they must follow health rules.”


Harry 08.18.20 at 3:35 am

“What is your basis for this confidence?”
“By and large” is the key phrase here. And ‘county health officials”. There’s a fair bit of violation, and a fair bit of compliance, but our county advice is pretty liberal. There’s a lot of mask wearing in public.

More importantly — as Sebastian implies, while we have plenty of reason to believe there will be plenty of transmission without people violating the rules, nobody has given me reasons to suppose that holding in-person classes under the conditions we’ll be enforcing will contribute to spread. UNC seems to have had a poor plan, and executed it poorly, but as far as I can tell there’s no reason to believe that the decision they have made about in-person classes will affect transmission. The main way that we are impacting transmission is by existing — indeed, even if we had completely shut up shop in May our prior existence would have been our main contribution to transmission (because students would come to live in Madison this fall even if we ceased to exist).

Faustusnotes — thanks for that; I’ve been thinking about your comments all day, which has been v, helpful to me…. and now I don’t have time to respond, but hope I will tomorrow!


faustusnotes 08.18.20 at 5:00 am

Sebastian H, the idea that masks cut physical transmission by 85% is not based on any evidence I’m aware of. The Lancet review found weak evidence of a 45% reduction in community settings. But even this is probably not enough. We know that condoms are 100% effective at preventing STIs and HIV but we have not controlled any of those diseases. This is because strategies based on personal protective actions don’t work against infectious diseases. Only testing and treatment works.

This is very blatantly obvious in Japan where mask wearing is universal and since the end of lockdown the country went from about 30 cases a day to about 1500 a day in two months. Tokyo went from 5 to 400. This may be partly because masks don’t prevent aerosol and contact transmission, but it’s mostly because people simply can’t protect themselves against something they can’t see that is spread socially.

I talk about this in this blogpost. You can’t protect yourself with individual action, and masks are a charade.


Neville Morley 08.18.20 at 5:19 am

Harry, could you elaborate on what deficiencies you saw in the UNC plan? From the UK, I’m finding it tricky to know where to look for an informed discussion. We have a month before our teaching resumes, and I’m very much in the camp of preparing for fully online delivery regardless of what the university currently says it expects – easier to move from that to hybrid than vice versa – as I think it’s highly likely that something similar will happen here despite the fact that the plans look pretty good in theory.


Hidari 08.18.20 at 11:07 am

Is no one going to talk about the long term health effects of sitting for hours on end staring at a computer screen (for students, yes, but especially for staff).

The health effects of a sedentary lifestyle are horrendous and no, you can’t ‘counteract it’ by doing a few hours in the gym at the end of the night.


Matt 08.18.20 at 11:34 am

For what it’s worth, here in Melbourne, where our numbers are not great by local standards, but much lower than pretty much anywhere in the US (Wisconsin is significantly worse than Australia at large now, for example) my university expects to be on-line only until January, at least. Some others might be more mixed (I’m not sure) and, in parts of the country with a better situation (like where John Q is) maybe they will teach in person. But here, we won’t, and that seems reasonable, even though, in my experience, it’s a much worse situation for most people.


MisterMr 08.18.20 at 12:32 pm


About RPGs:
I also play RPGs weekly with a group of friends; during the lockdown we played online through discord and finished a short campaign (we used discord instead of zoom because we had significant lags using the video, with discord the audio was ok and we used the chat and some dice rolling bots). Nobody really liked it and this friday we’re going to start in-person again. We are a group of “lazy” players that chats more than we play, and we tend to do free sandbox style adventures.
This is to say that personal experience and tolerance for online interaction may vary.

About face masks:
I have no flunkiest idea about how much mandatory face masks reduce contagion, however it seems to me that saying that they don’t work is the wrong message: what happens is that face masks reduce the spread, but not enough to push it at R0<1.
But for example you say “… in two months. Tokyo went from 5 to 400. “.
In Italy in the worst period cases doubled every 4 days, so in a period of 2 months (= 60 days = 15 doublings = x 32768) 5 cases would become 163840, the fact that Tokyo had only 400 is not optimal but still not nothing.


Harry 08.18.20 at 1:39 pm

thanks again for those comments.

Here are some vague speculations. I think you are displaying a tendency to compare very good online teaching with the actual quality of general in-person lectures, and I do think we can get to the point where that is the right comparison, but I don’t think we’re there right now. I suspect that, well done, lectures online beat out lectures in person (for most, but not all students). And the thing is that with the right kind of leadership, an administrator can ensure that they are quite well done, because the right people can be assigned to them, and given the right resources. That said— I’ve watched the process of assigning people to classes, and for the short term, it is not the case that that highly skilled people have been allocated to online courses and given the right resources. By and large it has been a matter of faculty choice, not careful management. I totally understand why that is, and am not being critical, but it doesn’t make me optimistic about the short term. But the long term — after pandemic — I’d love to see us have huge online 101 lectures, with a mix of online and in-person discussion sections, and have the huge lectures managed and run by the people who will be very best at it. I actually think that would be transformative.

When it comes to smaller classes, I know for sure that I tend to display the opposite tendency — comparing the best in-person experiences with the average online experience, and of course in-person comes out better. I try not to do this: I hear enough horror stories about 20 person classes in which the teacher spends 75 minutes straight talking, telling the students everything they need to know in order not to do the reading, not using any of the affordances that a small class gives them for high quality interaction. I even used to do something not much better than that myself frankly.

That said — I am really confident that I will teach much better (induce more learning) in person than online, and I want to do my job well. Maybe with enough training and experience (which maybe I’ll get thanks to COVID) I could get much better online. And I still believe that, at least with the current technology, on the whole, for most students and most instructors, even good online small classes cannot do what good in-person classes can do (and the intimacy and connection is part of that). What does that mean for policy? Well this conversation has pushed me a bit away from the confident ‘do as much in person as possible and safe’ position that is my default, because for that to be the right position we’d need to have a good plan for how we’re going to get at least nearly as high quality instruction in-person as online in those classes, and I don’t have that plan (to say the least).

Hidari — exactly.


Harry 08.18.20 at 2:02 pm

Neville — well, my impression (just from reading) is that, for example, they had far more in-person than seems wise, and that the distancing rules were lax. But the big thing is that they seem to have seriously under-provided quarantine rooms, so that they were immediately overloaded, necessitating the emptying of dorms and (therefore) the shift to all-remote instruction. I don’t know the exact number of our quarantine capacity, but it is high!


LFC 08.19.20 at 1:18 am

I read the Raleigh News & Observer article about the UNC Chapel Hill situation that was linked at another blog. That piece made it sound as if a large part of the problem was the admin’s (understandable and probably predictable) inability to control students’ off-campus behavior. Of roughly 30,000 students there (roughly 20,000 undergrad, 10,000 grad students), a third live off campus, apparently including quite a few undergrads (I don’t know the exact number). That said, I’m sure there were/are relevant other factors, as Harry B. suggests.

As for in-person vs online classes, apart from large lectures (which are in their own category) I can’t imagine that online will equal in-person in quality for small or even medium size classes, for some of the reasons already given. I haven’t had occasion yet to even use zoom (as I don’t teach and am not a student and have not had time to sign up for any of the zoom sessions or seminars (w speakers etc) that sometimes come to my attention). So I don’t want to judge a technology before experiencing it, but I am v skeptical that the discussions in small classes wd be the same online as in-person. Putting aside the issue of learning, which of course is very difficult to measure in some fields anyway, online classes just wouldn’t be as enjoyable istm. I used to think I was unlucky to have been an undergraduate in the typewriter era, i.e. before the existence of personal computers (or even personal word processors [whatever they were – I barely remember at this point]). But now I’m starting to think maybe that wasn’t so unlucky after all, at least in certain respects.


faustusnotes 08.19.20 at 1:49 am

MisterMr, I also want my group to go back to gaming physically, at least sometimes, because it’s a social activity I do to enjoy the company of my friends in person. But this doesn’t mean the quality of the content (the gaming part) of the online activity has suffered. Studying at university is not a social activity that we need to gain some physical joy from being closely connected, like hanging out with friends, so it isn’t necessarily the case that it suffers from this lack of connection as hanging out with friends to play a game does. (I think that’s the point I’m trying to make).

Regarding masks, I really think people overestimate the effect they have on the reproduction number without properly considering other actions. After ending lockdown Japan held case numbers steady for a month, with universal mask wearing, but during this time bars, closed entertainment spaces, and public events were closed or severely restricted (until late June for example bars were only allowed to open until 10pm and night clubs were shut). From early July Japan reopened bars, karaoke joints and public events more fully (still less than Italy allowed in March), and case numbers increased by a factor of 10 in a month. All the countries that had rapid early success in containing the virus – South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China – all used case isolation, while Italy and the UK did not. Japan’s relative success in containing the virus has nothing to do with masks and everything to do with test, trace and isolate – following WHO advice – and very early action taken to prevent the spread of the virus. I describe Japan’s early actions here, and it is clear that Japan’s actions were much more aggressive and public health focused from the beginning.

By missing these points, and focusing on masks, people open themselves for disaster as they then use masks for risk compensation. That’s what Harry’s university wants to do: risk compensation. It won’t work.


ph 08.19.20 at 3:10 am

Interesting thread. When we combine JQ’s @9 with Harry’s vision of very large lectures – we get a very different topography of student/staff ratios.

One of the problems that emerged from distance learning over the last few decades involved increased student choice in quality and brand. Students could take online/distance credit courses at various institutions, and then request that these credits be used to satisfy degree requirements.

In some cases, students much preferred to register for Course X taught prestige/expert professor X via distance, rather than take the ‘same’ course taught by kind of ordinary professor Y teaching within the student’s degree program. Professor Y was not happy.

Right now on Youtube, one can take a variety of courses music, creative writing etc, from expert instructors. EducationX has long been providing a very mixed bag of courses. But StanfordX provides very high quality computer science courses globally, courses that were identical for the most part to courses in the regular Stanford program..

One Stanford instructor observed that many of 35,000 taking the courses were IT and tech professionals, and that the StanfordX students at the top end outperformed the students on campus.

My view is that we’re well into a long-anticipated rethinking of education. There is a large community of people who want to attend college football and basketball games. Yes, that’s very much a thing. I enjoyed many of the rituals and regalia of university life. Revisiting campuses as an alumnus does bring back many happy memories. Can we set a price on these memories? Yes, and for many that price is too high to pay.

AI is advancing at a remarkable rate even as the operating costs of universities continues to rise. For profit education online education is closing the gap, and I expect accreditation for work in these courses will follow shortly. I linked elsewhere to a Google recognized fast-track certification program.

The next year will be telling, I expect. I support Harry’s efforts, but my sense is that few universities will return students to classes before next year. Not for health reasons, but because institutions are fearful of being sued, especially in the US.

K-12 will return to something like normal within a year. University life may return to something like normal. Certainly the financial incentives for the institutions are there.

The question is: how many institutions will survive the inevitable cull? Demand for online education from major institutions will almost certainly involve brand very heavily. Which means that larger, more prestigious institutions are very likely to dramatically expand their share of the ‘market’ at the expense of the less prestigious, at least for largely online programs.

How many smaller universities and colleges will be able to attract students for in-person classes? Quite a few, I hope/expect. But the mission/vision statements of these institutions must be defined very quickly, if only for internal planning. The bean-counters are delighted with the savings closed classrooms bring.

We may very well see a marked drop in administration (see the UK debacle) as universities fail to meet student need. If/when online education becomes the norm, a very large part of the university economic model changes.

Expert instruction may be licensed as specialists ‘licence’ online courses across multiple institutions. Admin and admissions may be outsourced to specialist companies, etc.

So, we can debate the efficacy of masks, etc. But I’d say that’s a forest/trees problem. The reality is that the existing university system has failed, and is unlikely to survive without major structural changes, and would have faced the same challenges, with or without COVID.

We’re well in a completely new world. The sooner we figure out that much, the better.

A quality degree program may look involve watching 200 hundred hours of quality lectures, and completing a series of activities with other students, supervised and graded by a combination of AI, and outsourced short-contract academics, a la charter schools.

Two years away, I’d guess. Tops.


nastywoman 08.19.20 at 5:56 am

this is really… weird?
Of all commenters here ph writes:

”We’re well in a completely new world. The sooner we figure out that much, the better.

My view is that we’re well into a long-anticipated rethinking of education.

AI is advancing at a remarkable rate even as the operating costs of universities continues to rise. For profit education online education is closing the gap, and I expect accreditation for work in these courses will follow shortly. I linked elsewhere to a Google recognized fast-track certification program.

K-12 will return to something like normal within a year. University life may return to something like normal. Certainly the financial incentives for the institutions are there.

The question is: how many institutions will survive the inevitable cull?
If/when online education becomes the norm, a very large part of the university economic model changes.

AND only in a system where education is FREE –
from the get go – students -(and their parents) don’t ask – if it’s worth to pay for the rents and the commuting to a ”physical” education – you can get via VR in a very ”secure” environment.


Neville Morley 08.19.20 at 7:50 am

I think it’s a mistake to think of a shift to online learning as just the replication of conventional lectures and seminars in Zoom or Teams (I think FaustusNotes made this point above). To judge from the experience of Zoom meetings, Zoom seminars are indeed likely to be inadequate substitutes for face-to-face-in-person seminars, and pretty hard work for everyone involved.

But insofar as one of the aims of the seminar is to get students engaging with the material and with each other, there are other methods: most obviously, the asynchronous online discussion board, where they can engage at times that suit them, think about their comments and plan them out, do a bit of research before responding etc – and perhaps some students who hate face-to-face interaction are more likely to engage. Yes, there are issues with equity and access, and I’m going to need to devote a lot of time and attention to moderation (CT is both a model and an awful warning for how this sort of online discussion can work…), but at the moment I’m optimistic that this can support discussion and engagement that is at least as good as a normal seminar.

Possible mental health issues if students spend 23.5 hours a day isolated in their rooms is a different issue, but I suspect this would/will be an issue whether they have a couple of hours of face-to-face seminar a week or not.


Hidari 08.19.20 at 7:57 am

‘We may very well see a marked drop in administration (see the UK debacle) as universities fail to meet student need. ‘


I see you don’t understand in whose interests the marketisation of education has been carried out. Here’s a clue: it’s not the students’ (or the staff’s). One thing I can absolutely assure you, whatever happens, is that the number of managers and bureaucrats and admin. staff in your average university will not decrease, nor will their wages be cut. Au contraire.

Lecturers and people who do that actual teaching on the other hand…..that may well be a different story.


Harry 08.19.20 at 1:28 pm

“Studying at university is not a social activity that we need to gain some physical joy from being closely connected, like hanging out with friends, so it isn’t necessarily the case that it suffers from this lack of connection as hanging out with friends to play a game does. ”

I think I disagree with this, at least for much of what we teach. Philosophy is an intensely social activity. Basically nobody is clever enough to make much progress alone, so many minds need to be working at once and in coordination. And its through that process that the individual minds develop skills. I always advise students to take classes with their friends because then studying — thinking hard and together — becomes a leisure activity, and they’ll do more of it without noticing. And many of the skills we want to induce them to learn are not discipline specific (interpreting charitably but accurately, expressing themselves precisely and concisely, thinking together in a team) and have social-emotional underpinnings that (I’m agreeing with LFC here) are not necessarily impossible to learn online, but much harder and slower to learn online than in person given the current technology.

Of course, plenty of in-person classes, including plenty of small ones, fail to harness the in-person-ness of the class, and might as well be online. That’s bad teaching. There’s plenty of it.

Masks — I don’t think we’d be better off without masks, and anyway we’re under a State order that everyone wear masks in places of work when not alone in an office, so we’re stuck with it.


Trader Joe 08.19.20 at 1:41 pm

“Studying at university is not a social activity that we need to gain some physical joy from being closely connected, like hanging out with friends, so it isn’t necessarily the case that it suffers from this lack of connection as hanging out with friends to play a game does. ”

I’m sure I disagree with this. While its factually correct that one can get an education on line – that’s not what going to university is all about. I’d make the case that more than 50% of the benefit of attending an in-person 4 year university is the non-education aspects.

That includes everything from parties and leisure time, to figuring out how to interact with roomates and classmates to establishing the basics of keeping oneself healthy, fed and clean. Its an environment where you can learn and fail at these things with far lower consequences than in the real world and accordingly has value.

To me an on-line only University experience would be about the equivalent of taking a GED instead of going to high school – yes you can show you have the credential, but you have little experience to show for it.

All that said – there are elements of a university education that can be delivered on-line. This should be done to make more room for other things which can’t, not to replace it.


Faustusnotes 08.19.20 at 2:12 pm

The second half of my post above is about online teachings potential to reduce harassment. University as a social experience is actually quite negative for a lot of people and eg the social interactions of tutorials and in person teaching often means watching a few rich white boys grandstanding. Department seminars can be excruciating exercises in bullying and groupthink, with coordinated attacks on weak individuals. I think we should be more open to the possibility of using the new tools this epidemic is forcing us to use to try and reform the entire experience for the better, and balance out the problems that have plagued the academy for too long – and that no one has found a solution to through in person teaching.

Re: masks, yes no mask may be vaguely worse than a mask, but being forced to go into a high risk situation because three months of politicization of masks has left people thinking they can neutralize the risk is worse than staying home. As a lot of people in the USA are ab0ut to learn.


notGoodenough 08.19.20 at 4:20 pm

Ignoring, for now, the issues regarding the health risks of reopening (and there is a good, lengthy discussion to be had there, some of which was mentioned on this previous thread [1]), and the importance of well-thought out plan of approach (in terms of risk reduction, real-time monitoring, and rapid response), and considering the hypothetical future.

I have yet to be convinced of the efficacy of online-only education (though I can certainly see advantages to using digitisation as a tool, as we do in some sectors of science). To be clear, I do not assert the counterpositive (that online-only cannot be equal to or superior than more traditional methods), merely that I have yet to see a good response as to why my previously-outlined concerns [2] are not a potential issue worth being concerned about.

To make a brief summary of some of the more relevant points: 1) I think there are subjects which would greatly suffer without access to relevant facilities (e.g. chemistry/physics/biology without labs, veterinary medicine without access to animals, etc.); 2) university cost is by no means universal, and in many countries it is relatively low (thanks to zero tuition fees and sensible regulations regarding rent control) which sugests the problem is less the university model and more rampant capitalism; and 3) while there may be benefits to digitization (though I would like to see some research first), there may also be some benefits to the current model (both in terms of the learning experience, and also in a broader context – such as developing “working with others” type skills, and the social aspect too).

While I suspect digitization has the potential to prove a useful tool, it is also important not to throw out the wheat with the chaff.




ph 08.19.20 at 9:48 pm

Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off at the notion of job cuts among staff in the land of (nearly) free education.

Search term “universities cut staff”

Examples of Hidari hilarity: “…universities are frantically working on strategies to deal with billions in revenue shortfalls from the loss of international student fees. Most expect the situation will continue to get worse into 2021. Experts say the number of job losses over the 38 universities could reach into the tens of thousands and would affect administrative staff to professors…”

Faculty and administrators are both on the block – right now, and more so in the future. In the UK we’re likely to see work action as we are with the teachers. Currently, teachers unions enjoy considerable support. That may quickly change. “In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.”

For all the ‘experts’ on revolution we have around here, few recognize that the freedom to choose, the freedom to prosper, and the freedom to refuse taxation are right at the center of many revolutionary movements. That’s what happened in 2015- 2016 – a rejection of the experts and the rule of those who know best.

Remember how popular the Mine Workers unions became in the UK? If the UK experiences a year of work actions, I expect many students and their families may begin to search online and abroad for workable options.

Universities and public schools are delivering a very inferior product at this point. I don’t blame any individual administration, or group. There’s a great deal of bloat in the system. The current emphasis on purging original sin from students’ souls (see above) isn’t doing much to win new support for institutions and groups acting to advance and protect their own interests at the expense of the students.

But the notion that administrators aren’t going under the axe, too, is very silly. If the public gets the sense that they’re being held hostage we’ll likely see a real return to Thatcherism with teachers being deemed an essential service and being forbidden by law from striking – on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond.


Alan White 08.20.20 at 5:05 am

Harry, I have followed this thread with interest–and held my tongue mostly because I am retired and have nearly no wisdom to contribute as to how best to manage what you face now–and especially how my former colleagues teaching 4/4s will deal with the chaos that C19 threw at us all. I will say however that I agree with your remarks about the importance of face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) instruction with all the advantages that immediate social interaction entails and that cannot be obtained via things like Zoom. My use of Zoom with colleagues in recent professional discussions has all too well revealed its strengths but inherent weaknesses in communicating effectively.

That said, I must also say that I do not appreciate interloping comments that stray so far from what you address in the OP, and hope that as moderator you will refuse to post some that stray far, far off course.


nastywoman 08.20.20 at 6:39 am

”Rolling on the floor laughing my ass off at the notion of job cuts among staff in the land of (nearly) free education”.

Well –
at the Land of real ”free education” – Germany – there is an immense Lehrermangel –
and more University Professors are desperately needed -(even in times of this Pandemic) –
and I suspect it mainly has to do something with having a system – which gives the people an education FOR FREE – on every level.

And isn’t it… weird? – that somebody like ph – who seem to understand that A.V.
(After the Virus) –
”We’re well in a completely new world
”The sooner we figure out that much, the better” –
comes up with usual reactionary:
”the freedom to choose, the freedom to prosper, and the freedom to refuse taxation are right at the center of many revolutionary movements” –
AND THEN – even ”Trumps”:
”That’s what happened in 2015- 2016 – a rejection of the experts and the rule of those who know best”.

AS –
Yes –
that’s why America has so many more C-19 Deaths than Germany – because unlike in Germany –
America in 2015- 2016 – elected an Idiot who rejected the experts and the wisdom of ”those who know best”.


Hidari 08.20.20 at 10:28 am

‘we’ll likely see a real return to Thatcherism’

Wow that sounds so exciting, can’t wait. Perhaps it will be as much of a success as the privatisation of the UK railways, who knows.


Hidari 08.20.20 at 12:04 pm

There seems to be a slightly bizarre assumption on this thread (I’ve noticed it on other CT threads) that the only things that Universities teach are the Arts and Humanities, the ‘abstract’ and ‘theoretical’ aspects of the social sciences (with maybe some data crunching), computing, and the ‘abstract’ aspects of the hard sciences (i.e. either things that are purely theoretical (like theoretical physics, ‘pure’ maths) or things that lend themselves to being computerised)….and nothing else.

But this is obviously….not true. What about medicine for example? Good luck teaching surgery online. Or practical engineering? I remember stumbling upon an engineering department and being stunned at the size of the turbines, ‘hidden’ in an obscure basement. Or what about biology, specifically animal sciences (ethology etc.)?

Not to mention that people don’t just learn at University but at college. Think of teaching nursing, hairdressing, ‘being a car mechanic’, plumbing etc. online.

Please note: I’m not saying these things can’t be taught online: obviously they can. I’m saying will the course be as good online as ‘face to face’?


nastywoman 08.20.20 at 1:41 pm

”What about medicine for example? Good luck teaching surgery online”.

”Virtual Reality started its fascinating take-over of healthcare for the greatest pleasure of patients and doctors alike. Here are five great examples of medical VR transforming patient lives and how doctors work.

Did you know that it is possible to swim with whales in the ocean while lying in a hospital bed? Have you imagined experiencing your 74th birthday as a 20-something? Perhaps follow a risky surgery from your couch?

Medical VR is an area with fascinating possibilities. It has not just moved the imagination of science-fiction fans, but also clinical researchers and real-life medical practitioners. Although the field is relatively new, there are increasingly great examples of VR having a positive effect on patients’ lives and physicians’ work”.


Max 08.20.20 at 4:08 pm

I think distance learning (studying from home) is the ultimate solution.


faustusnotes 08.21.20 at 1:35 am

hidari is right of course that a portion of the student body have classes that cannot be taught online. But it’s worth noting that a lot of these students – in medicine, nursing, caring professions, plumbing etc – are in fields that also have to work during the lockdown, and the same principle can apply to universities as applied to the rest of the economy during the lockdown: those of us who don’t have to leave our home should stay home to reduce community transmission so that it is safer for those workers to do their jobs. For a lot of these professions training in personal protective equipment is a very important part of their job and the social distancing and risk mitigation measures that the rest of us are so bad at are likely to work for them. Also a lot of their classes can be held online without loss of quality – particularly for the first 1-2 years of their training a large portion of doctors’ and engineers’ training is theoretical.

(Also Hidari I think now all nurses in the UK are educated at uni not college …?)

Let’s just remember that a large part of the student body are 19-25 year olds, people we know cannot be relied on to wear a condom, reduce their partner numbers, obey no-swimming warnings, wear a seat belt, drive safely or wear proper safety equipment in sport. Why should we think that despite the known difficulty of behavioral health campaigns in all these areas of activity we can somehow get them to wear a mask?

As an example, consider all the rugby, soccer, AFL and NFL players who are known to have lied about the severity of their head injury symptoms so that they can evade head injury assessments and get back on the pitch to keep playing. If you can’t rely on these people to follow basic behavioral health guidance to protect their own health when they are experiencing identifiable symptoms of injury, why would you expect them to wear a mask effectively? Or consider boxing – a large number of young men and women take up and enjoy a sport that carries a known risk of head injury and death, yet we expect them to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from a disease that probably won’t hurt them? And need I mention smoking? Yes, let’s all expect a 19 year old who took up a habit that causes lung cancer to be super cautious about protecting their lungs from a respiratory disease!


ph 08.21.20 at 3:01 am


Hidari 08.21.20 at 7:52 am

@47. AKA ‘learn to code’. Of which more here, in an article entitled, clearly enough ‘Please don’t learn to code’.

Incidentally the reason Google are engaging in all this ‘philanthropy’ is that they bitterly resent all ‘their’ ‘hard earned’ cash going to computer programmers (programmers being one of the very few classes of workers who can still ‘name their price’ which of course capitalists bitterly resent), which is why they engaged in that ‘wage fixing’ cartel a few years back:

By lowering the ‘entrance costs’ to programming Google hope to tempt more and more people into it, thereby creating a ‘reserve army’ (to coin a phrase) of unemployed or underemployed coders, which will enable them to slash wages, lengthen hours, ‘worsen’ work conditions etc.

The ”Don’t Learn to Code’ article linked to above is worth reading in any case: even ‘good’ qualifications from a ‘good’ university certainly does not mean that you walk into a highly paid job with long holidays and great career prospects immediately on graduation. Life’s not like that.


faustusnotes 08.22.20 at 4:03 am

The “learn to code” thing is a really good example of the narrow-mindedness and ignorance of conservative approaches to higher education. It’s a throwback to the mid-90s when the current crop of conservatives were fighting their university politics battles and anyone who could wave a mouse and program a few lines in basic could get a job (this didn’t include any of the conservative culture warriors, of course – they would have spent their high school years sneering at those nerds and missed the shift to computers so completely that they’re only now noticing it). The dotcom bust put an end to that and now to get a decent job in the IT sector you need a higher degree, because the coding part of software engineering is the easiest part. Anyone can learn the instructions, but to be a good software developer you need a background in mathematics and engineering sufficient to be able to solve difficult problems before you approach the code [a point made somewhat weakly in the article hidari linked to above]. SQL is a good example of this, a trivially easy language that is based on a very elegant mathematical foundation, understanding of which is essential to being a good database manager.

With the growth of the gaming industry of course a good background in fine arts, art criticism, media studies and design are also tickets to a job. I guess this must really piss off the conservative culture warriors, who got their degrees in economics and law and have no chance of ever getting a job that contributes as much to humanity as the background designer on a modern computer game.

If anyone is naive enough to follow the “Learn to code” mantra of the conservative sneerers, the best they can hope for without that deeper background in maths, engineering and computer science is a code-monkey job, being paid a low salary with poor conditions to implement the instructions the designers set down for them. I doubt anyone with a degree in fine arts and design is silly enough to fall for that, and will instead look for a job with a future in the computer game industry, or making stickers for a major comms company like LINE or Wechat.

The “learn to code” mantra is another example of the complete failure of conservatives to understand culture. If they did they would be able to distinguish the form of computer science from the substance, and recognize where the growth of jobs in computer science actually is and the required skills. But to do that they would have to stop sneering at the cultural interests of the vast majority of humanity, and pay attention to what ordinary humans outside of their weird bubble actually want. It’s no surprise that ph falls for their sneering. Do you even have a LINE acccount, ph?


Hidari 08.22.20 at 7:24 am

Something went wrong with the ‘numbering’. My post at 49 wasn’t replying to 47, but 48, ph talking about Google.


nastywoman 08.22.20 at 8:44 pm

And I hope the following is not so ”nasty” (again) that it will take days to appertains on this thread –
BUT – as there are all these… (University) Buildings standing empty in the German City I reside – and everybody who is ”in communication” here – already knows – that only a few of these rooms – one day – will be used again as ”classrooms” –
There are all of these very… positive ideas –
from changing it all into Art Galleries or using the available ”Real Estate” for affordable housing.


hix 08.22.20 at 9:47 pm

It would be good to consider the secondary effects of offering in person teaching, not just the risks during teaching. Maybe students stay home with their parents now, go to wild parties with their friends and infect their parents. Or they are relativly low risk at home and start wild parties once they are back at the college town, or maybe they have one of those horrible two person in a room dorms where they auto infect their roomates. Or most students are locals but have long public transport commutes.
A second suggestion would be to impose some kind of formal limit at which point in person teaching will be abolished automatically, since those kind of relaxations have a habit to just stick, no matter how much case numbers go up again. Say a rule that if local infections increase above 30 cases per 100k inhabitants in the region, in person teaching is abolished again.


ph 08.23.20 at 5:29 am

Take your pick:

Only someone completely unfamiliar with the arts – as in getting paid for one’s artistic skills could produce such a profoundly uninformed comment.

I received an email from a cousin earlier today who is, incidentally, an award-winning graduate of a major film school. She reports she’s happy to have recently found gainful employment in university administration ‘with health benefits.’

Her beef? Her immensely gifted high-school age child and his pal are providing hundreds of hours of unpaid labor for game developers in return for ‘free use’ of new content, content which he and his pal will then try to improve in return for ‘more access to more new free content’ etc. This apprenticeship will hopefully yield big benefits. But these kids are exceptional in ever sense. Her partner, a less-gifted soul like the rest of us, is applying for zero-hour contract work as a voice actor. Fingers crossed!


ph 08.23.20 at 5:47 am


faustusnotes 08.23.20 at 7:30 am

I guess you don’t have a line account then eh, ph? I’m aware of the working conditions of the Japanese game industry, in fact my former GM was a corporate slave for a black company in the game industry until he moved to Canada, where he now has excellent employment in one of the world’s foremost gaming companies. But you might make a stronger point if you provided a link to a report on the game industry, rather than the anime industry. You are aware that they are different, right?


eg 08.23.20 at 12:59 pm

I am cognizant that this is an international discussion, and I wonder how some terms used to describe educational institutions translate across borders. Here in Ontario, Universities offer programs that are primarily theoretical in focus, while the practical application post-secondary programs are offered at our Colleges. There have been increasingly successful efforts to link programming between the two in some cases, but generally speaking I think it would be acknowledged that distance learning is more problematic for the Colleges than the Universities.


notGoodenough 08.23.20 at 1:08 pm

On google courses:

So apparently the solution to the problems of education commodification in the US and UK is more commodification, and we should hand control of all education over to companies – because trusting private companies to deliver a worthwhile service has never backfired before.


While degrees provide a broad suite of skills and training, making you flexible and able to meet a wide range of challenges, it is true that short courses designed to target key skills can be useful. This used to be covered by things like on the job training (so you could learn these skills while getting paid to work), apprenticeships, open university courses, etc.

So the exceptional disruptive idea being gushed over is to offer something which used to be free (or even pay you), and to charge you for it. Which means if you compare the cost of a google course to a degree in Germany, it is actually more expensive to do the google course.

Once again, genius.

Of course, none of this addresses the issues previously highlighted – that it is difficult to learn many subjects (e.g. medicine, science, engineering, etc.) without access to specialised facilities. The solution proffered seems to be “learn to code”. Presumably under the assumption we’ll just have to live with no medical, scientific, or technological support in our societies from now on.

It is also amusing that the “google course” argument is so obviously a distraction – serious concerns have been posited regarding online-only efficacy, and rather than responding to those concerns we get “become a data analyst”.

To be frank, when I raise concerns regarding the efficacy of online education (particularly with respect to subjects which require specialised facilities), and the response is “become a project manager”, I suspect that that is not a response from someone interested in having an honest discussion regarding online-only education.

It is a pity, because I do think there could be an interesting discussion regarding how education may change in the future to better leverage the technology available. But it is clear that that discussion requires honesty from those who are pro-online only in order to address the challenges of doing so – and it seems fairly clear that that is unlikely to happen here.


notGoodenough 08.23.20 at 1:28 pm

On reopening:

I think hix @ 53 raises a good point. If your institute is planning reopening, it might be worth seeing (if you haven’t done so already) what measures are planned for monitoring the situation – e.g. will there be regular testing, what level of enforcement will be in place, what is considered a “red line”, is there some form of “track and trace” in place to ensure if someone tests positive everyone at risk can be reached quickly, etc.

In short, what are the plans for risk reduction (e.g. masks, hand washing, social distancing, etc.), real-time monitoring (e.g. what testing and monitoring proceedures are planned, how regularly will they be carried out, etc.), and rapid response (what is the emergency plan (e.g. if you have students, what is the plan if things shutdown – will they have to travel back home – risking transmission – or will they be staying in residences, etc.). While I’m sure suitable analysis will uncover even more that should be considered, I hope these 3Rs represent a reasonable starting point for consideration.

When my company reopened, there were very strict rules – for example, how many people could be in any room at any given time, the use of PPE, etc. – and people were encouraged to telework where possible. There was also a good monitoring system in place, and when one person’s relative tested positive the institute was shut down to stabilise the situation until testing could be carried out again. It hasn’t been easy (and I’m sure we’ve missed things), but at least it has been taken seriously. Since one of my colleagues has now lost both parents to COVID19, we have been pretty motivated to be careful – but even so, things do slip through the cracks..


notGoodenough 08.23.20 at 1:35 pm

as a quick addendum to my comments regarding online education:

I should note I think there are honest proponents of online education who are giving thoughtful consideration to the pros and cons (faustusnotes’s post is a good example, and while I’m not sure I’d agree with everything they say I would certainly be interested in hearing their thoughts regarding how they see integration of online with current systems, where they see it can replace, and how they see education changing to better suit society).

I also think there are people who are not giving careful consideration and thoughtful analysis.

The easy way to tell is that the former post good ideas showing their working regarding how online education can benefit us all, and respond to the concerns with thoughtful analysis. The latter say “learn to code”.

Sadly, as the latter detract from the former, the worthwhile conversations seem to get somewhat derailed.


Dwight L. Cramer 08.23.20 at 4:34 pm

Higher education is about to run into reality, with all its sharp edges. Those who anticipates a discontinuity followed by reformation proceeding to their liking are in for a rude shock.

For example, all the discussion above about the ‘learn to code’ movement. To put it crudely, faustusnotes wins. As someone who has spent much of his pandemic solitude learning to code in Python (courtesy of an MIT MOOC that cost $150), here are a couple of observations. What the general world (not just conservative knownothings) considers learning to code (write a program in a high level language like Python, Java or, for that matter, R) is just the beginning. To play with your new skill, you need a grasp of linear algebra, probability and discrete mathematics (all at levels premised on a knowledge of calculus). Oh, yes, and then there is the minor matter of domain expertise (lest we end up seriously correlating annual drowning deaths in New England with the length of the winning word in the National Spelling Bee).

Now, there are jobs in IT that don’t require all that (and some of them are called programming jobs). But ten competent programmers simply can’t do what a pair of outstanding ones can do. And the whole idea of a reserve army of the unemployed is premised on fungibility.

I don’t know what the future holds for higher education. Somebody up above commented on Stanford’s experience with learning outcomes online vs. oncampus, and I can say that the two populations are different enough that drawing any conclusions (beyond that it is possible to teach and learn online with respect to certain kinds of material and attain comparable measured outcomes). That, in itself, of course, is a very powerful conclusion, particularly if your concern is the economic value of the educational credential.

So, yeah, you can take the MIT intro to computer science course, the Stanford Algorithms course, Harvard’s probability course, the University of Washington machine learning sequence, Carnegie Mellon’s cybersecurity offering, etc., etc. and cob together the equivalent of a first rate undergraduate degree in CS or data science or whatever. Cost maybe $3k.

Of course, designing that personal learning path is beyond any but the most privileged of 18-year-olds. And there is a lot more to a decent liberal arts education than the accumulation of domain expertise, even a highly marketable skill set. It’s the social constructs that provide those that are on the cusp of destruction.


Dero 08.24.20 at 4:34 am

All this stilted esoteric rambling, there used to be more intelligent discussion here, and the times certainly call for it.


Hidari 08.24.20 at 10:24 am

As some wag once said ‘Everyone should learn to code’ is like saying ‘Everyone should learn to do brain surgery.’ It’s true enough, so far as it goes, but the move from a career path that most people know absolutely nothing about, to a career path that most people have some kind of familiarity with (even if only reading about it in the newspapers) shows the rather fundamental problem with the ‘theory’: i.e that not everyone is willing, or able to, be a brain surgeon (and also that if everyone could do brain surgery, you would quickly find the high wages and ‘good’ career path evaporating).

Incidentally if anyone is thinking that the move from offline teaching to online teaching isn’t going to be taken by employers as a chance to slash wages (albeit de facto) and lengthen hours, they are dangerously naive.

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