Another one of those tiresome articles made the rounds the other day, asserting that online instruction during the pandemic was an outrageous failure and that students hated every moment of it. No, I’m not going to link to it; it doesn’t deserve your time (but you can find it, and a dozen of its shallow kin, easily enough if you must). These articles are worthless for at least three reasons. First, they rely on self-reported student satisfaction, and surely by now we all understand that this correlates loosely at best with instructional quality. Second, it’s not a mystery that these articles are a product of motivated reasoning: people want to be outraged, so media produce stories that feed that outrage – whether they represent the situation fairly or not. And third, what exactly would objectors to online instruction like us to have done? If we could simply wish a pandemic away, we’d already all have ponies. Flying ponies. I want my pony.
But there’s a legitimate question lurking in these otherwise facile articles. How many instructors, faced with a call to convert from face-to-face to online teaching, phoned it in? Not me; and not most of the colleagues I know well, who burnt the midnight oil and more converting lectures, labs, and even field courses to build innovative and effective online versions. But some did. Some simply booted up Zoom, hit record, and droned their lecture notes into the microphone.
To be fair: some instructors had no choice. I was lucky (?) to be able to spend pretty close to every waking moment converting my courses for online delivery. Others were less lucky, and were coping with home schooling, toddler care, family health crises, and the rest – and universities weren’t in a great position to provide them with the support they needed. Still, I wonder how many instructors could have delivered genuinely good online teaching, but didn’t.
Anecdotal evidence, like the tiresome article I’m not linking to, suggests that the number of instructors who phoned it in was not zero. That’s not surprising, I guess, but it’s a shame for two reasons. The more obvious is that the phoned-in course probably sucked for students. The less obvious is that the phoning-in damaged our prospects for harnessing the considerable advantages of online teaching (or at least of substantial online components to courses). My university’s administrators, like many, are working overtime to push a return to face-to-face instruction in the fall, and to dissuade us* from retaining online components – not, as far as I can tell, because they really believe that a face-to-face course is better than a good online one, but because that’s what they assume students are clamouring for.
So there were some extremely good online courses out there this year; and there were some real turkeys. In part I suspect this hews to a general rule. When anything is new**, it’s likely to have lots of variance in quality, as some experiments succeed, others fail, and our understanding of what works hasn’t been perfected or widely transmitted. Stephen Jay Gould long ago argued that this is why Mike Trout (or anybody else) isn’t going to hit .400 this year. There’s an important lesson here. If “New Thing X produced some turkeys” is a reason to abandon New Thing X, we’re giving up a lot of potential progress.*** Of course, the newness was surely amplifying variation that was already there. Some of the people who phoned it in when we went online were probably phoning it in pre-pandemic too.
But I started with a more quantitative question: how many instructors responded to the shift online by phoning it in? I don’t know. The turkeys, of course, get the press, but you can infer almost nothing from that. It’s possible that we’ll never know: the year was just too strange, and too much (we hope) a one-time aberration, to be evaluated. But I know this: if we put half the energy we’re wasting on hand-wringing into applauding, or even rewarding, those that did online teaching well, we could make a lot of very tired people a little happier. And that would be an awfully good thing.
© Stephen Heard May 25, 2021
Image: Bored, © mstlion via pixabay.com CC 0
*^To be fair, although some early ham-handed messaging suggested otherwise, they’re not dying on the hill; they’re merely pushing quite hard. Both of my fall course will retain substantial online components, because I think they worked well and enhanced the courses, and evidence so far suggests that nobody will try to fire me.
**^Online instruction isn’t new – but it’s sure as heck new to me, and to thousands of others who were thrust into it with little warning and less training. So I think the point stands.
***^Solyndra, anyone? And that might sound like I’m disapproving, but a failed loan to one new-technology company is exactly what you want. If none of the startups you invest in fail, your investment program isn’t finding innovation.