(I am now on Twitter , so you can follow this blog there too if you prefer it. –Boaz)
Between Zoom meetings and deadlines, I thought I’d jot down a few of my impressions so far on what lessons we can draw from this period on how well research and education can work online. I’ve had a few surprises in both directions – things that worked better than I would have expected, and aspects that were more problematic than I realized. These are personal impressions – please do comment on your own experiences.
As a rule of thumb, the interactions that most successfully replicate online are those that are relatively short and focused (an hour or so – e.g., a focused research meeting, seminar talk, or a lecture in a course). Other interactions (e.g., faculty meetings) are also fairly easily to port online, perhaps because the original wasn’t that great to begin with.
The things that are harder to replicate are sustained interactions over longer periods. These include more extended and less directed research collaborations, informal workshops, as well as support for students outside lectures in education.
Works well: Research seminars
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how effective research seminars such as our machine learning theory seminar are over Zoom. In particular these were no less interactive than physical seminars – in fact people are offten more comfortable asking questions on chat than they would during in-person seminars. I hope such seminars become common practice even after this period ends- flying a speaker across the country or the world to give an hour talk doesn’t makes much sense given that there is a perfectly satisfactory alternative.
Works well: Lectures
This term I am teaching cryptography, and online lectures on Zoom have gone surprisingly well (after working out some technical issues). Students participate on chat and ask questions, and seem to be following the lecture quite well. The important caveat is that lectures only work well for the students that attend and can follow them. For students who need extra support, it’s become much harder to access it. It’s also much easier for students to (literally) “fall off the screen” and fall behind in a course, which brings me to the next point.
Works less well: Support outside lectures
Lectures are just one component of a course. Most of students’ learning occurs outside the classroom, where students meet together and work on problem sets, or discuss course material. These interactions between students (both related and unrelated to course) are where much of their intellectual growth happens.
All these interactions are greatly diminished online, and I did not yet see a good alternative. I’ve seen reduced attendance in office hours and sections, and reports are that students find it much harder to have the sort of chance discussions and opportunities to find study partners that they value so much. If anything, this experience had made me less positive about the possibility of online education replacing physical colleges (though there are interesting hybrid models, where the students are co-located but lecturers are online).
Works less well: unstructured research collaborations
A focused meeting reporting on results or deciding on work allocation works pretty well over Zoom. So far it seems that extended brainstorming meetings, such as talking to someone over several hours in a coffeeshop, are much harder to replicate. In particular, a good part of such meetings is often spent with people staring in silence into their notebooks. As I wrote, mutual silence seems to be very hard to do over Zoom.
Generally, informal week-long workshops, where much time is devoted to unstructured discussions, are ones that are most important to hold in person, and are hard (or maybe impossible) to replicate online. I have still not attended an online conference, but I suspect that these aspects of the conference would also be the ones hardest to replicate.
Works well: faculty meetings
I’ve always found it hard to bring a laptop to a faculty meeting and get work done, while listening with one ear to what’s going on. This is so much easier over Zoom 🙂