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Lessons from COVID-19: What works online and what doesn’t

April 27, 2020

(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 🙂

3 Comments
  1. Annonymous Guest permalink
    April 27, 2020 11:48 pm

    What are your thoughts about testing in undergraduate classes? It looks like it would be very hard to prevent cheating, and we can expect an increase in scale, but also an increase in its “efficacy”, as it would allow for much easier pathways to having someone being able to fully answer a test in the place of the cheater. Then again, I’m not really sure what we know about how prevalent cheating is under “normal” classroom conditions.

    • April 27, 2020 11:55 pm

      I think testing is less of a problem than many other aspects. First, most college exams are not as high stakes as the SAT etc – much of the grade is determined by other components, and you have far more to lose if you get caught cheating than you have to gain.

      That said, if some exams are really high stakes then, while currently it’s not feasible, in normal times you could send students to take exams as a testing center. Also, there are proctoring apps which I think make it harder to cheat (though I would *not* recommend people use them this term – they can add another layer of difficulty and technical issues to what is already a hard situation).

      Overall, I think testing is the part that I am least worried about in online education. Ultimately testing is actually the one setting in a course where you don’t actually need the student to be near their instructors or their peers.

  2. Jonathan Shewchuk permalink
    May 1, 2020 7:47 pm

    Yes to your point about interactions between students. I’ve long believed that brick-and-mortar university attendance will continue to beat online courses for 80% of students, and the social context is the reason why. Students are surrounded daily by other students who are equally obsessed with their studies and their grades. They learn a lot from discussions with other students, but even more important is the motivation that comes from being in a social environment where all your peers have the same motivations. There are only a few personality types who can generate the same motivation alone at home.

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