How many university instructors phoned it in during the pandemic?

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 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.


7 thoughts on “How many university instructors phoned it in during the pandemic?

  1. sleather2012

    I think overall some good things arose out of the distance learning experience, although I certainly prefer face to face, I think that the students probably like the fact that the resources now on-line are more interactive than what was available previously


  2. Robin Heinen

    Our first semester teaching online was a disaster. None of us were really prepared, and there was, as you said above, no support. Students, too, were unprepared. And what may have been the worst part is that we all expected that it would take a few weeks and then it would disappear. But then it didn’t. My second semester in the pandemic was much better. We knew very well what to expect, how to present our material, and students were very receptive. Some of our online workshops were great. In fact, many of our students wrote in the evaluations that they preferred online lectures (some were honest enough that the possibility to speed up the recordings were part of the reason, replaying was another). I wouldn’t mind if some aspects of teaching would remain online, but I can’t wait to incorporate some face to face teaching into my current programs either.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. David Hunt

    From the point of view of a TA, that first semester was flying by the seat of our pants. The instructors were madly trying to figure out final exams online, while we were swamped with online “office hours” trying to help students who were struggling through the abrupt transition.

    I look back at some of the content delivery we did back than and sigh/cringe. In many ways it was terrible.

    The course I TA’d in the fall (after doing it twice in person) went smoother than it ever had. The instructors and I (the sole TA) sat down virtually and figured out how to make it work. A course that always incorporated guest lectures suddenly didn’t have to worry about someone being physically present, and we had guests from all over the world. The ability for the me as the TA to answer side questions during a live lecture in the chat (once we had a pointed discussion about irrelevant conversations) helped many students who were having trouble following. The students had to write summaries/critiques of lecture material, and the ability to go back and rewatch certainly increased the calibre of those summaries. Discussions actually flowed better with the structure imposed by the online format. A dozen little things.

    Did the positives outweigh the negatives? No. I would still rather help teach that course in person. But did it make me a better teacher in general? Very much yes.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. David Hunt

        It’s also a comfort and familiarity thing.

        I helped teach lectures before where the guest was virtual (same course as above, the rest of us were in-person in one room looking at a Skype call on the projector), and it always felt awkward.

        Now, my gut would be to say “Hey, we will be doing a virtual class on this day, so feel free to stay home and join the Zoom call from there. We will also have an in-person room with a camera set up if you prefer that.”

        I also would have rolled my eyes at the idea of having some sort of concurrent chat during a lecture, seeing it as nothing more than a potential distraction. Now, I see a well managed chat (note, “well-managed)” is important!) as a great adjunct to a lecture, and want to explore platforms for having one during in-person or hybrid lectures. I have found it great for clearing up minor confusions during the lecture in a timely matter, instead of the end of the class when you have to go back around. It also helps many students stay focused and gives another avenue for participation. Again, this is something that enforced Zoom lectures has completely flipped my opinion on.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jeremy Fox

    Two unrelated thoughts:
    1. Surely “mailing it in” is really a gradient. And further, you can’t really locate Prof. X on the gradient without knowing a lot about how the pandemic affected Prof. X.
    2. If our pedagogy was pretty good pre-pandemic, then Fisher’s geometric model suggests that most pandemic-mandated changes to our pedagogy are unlikely to be improvements. And they are especially unlikely to be improvements if they are big changes. For the same reason that random mutations are unlikely to move a phenotype closer to the fitness optimum, especially if they’re mutations of large effect. Shamelessly self-promotional link to an old post making the same point in a different context: (I definitely think one can push back against this argument, but I don’t think it’s a strawman either…)


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Totally agree on point 1; I was definitely trying to acknowledge that.

      On point 2: Fisher’s geometric model suggests that only if our pre-pandemic pedagogy was under effective selection, and if the teaching-quality surface is not too rugged. Sadly, the former may not be true (as poor teachers seem to persist in the system at non-trivial frequencies). More interestingly, I’d argue (with benefit of hindsight) that online tech represents a major “ruggedination” of the surface – in that it brought us teaching-quality peaks that were not accessible to small mutations. In other words, I was forced to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise, but that turned out to be pretty good.

      Oh, and your (always welcome) shameless self-promotion reminds me of this old post, in which I apply Fisher’s geomtric model to software updates:!



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