Lean into online learning: stop the live lectures


Photo courtesy of Tumisu

The real world diverges from our ideal world, and we are often stuck choosing between second-bests. Well, if we lived in a world of second-bests before the coronavirus pandemic, then now we must be down to a world of third-bests, maybe even fourth-, fifth- or sixth-bests.

We still have sports, but in shortened forms and without fans. We still have restaurants and stores, but we have to wear masks, and some establishments won’t let you inside.

And we still have school, but it’s mostly online.

It’s not any cheaper, mind you. If you thought universities were going to give you a discount for an online education, then — to borrow a phrase from my Southern friends — bless your heart. You can save money if you’re taking all your classes from home by not paying room and board. But tuition is still full price, even though it’s not what you signed up for.

Being in the same place at the same time for class is like air or gravity or a president who doesn’t retweet conspiracy theories — you don’t realize how important it is until it’s gone. In-person instruction facilitates relationships between students, makes it easier to ask questions, and gives you at least a chance to focus on the material.

Beyond the educational benefits, going to class provides so many opportunities to run into people you want to see. “Meet you after class” is a crucial tool in the college student’s social toolbox.

Online learning has none of these benefits. But I’m not here to trash online learning. It has one major advantage over in-person instruction: flexibility. That’s huge. Online learning allows you to go at your own pace, rewatch lectures you didn’t understand, and access all class resources right on your computer. It also gives more flexibility to get a job to pay that full-priced tuition the university insists on charging you.

Some professors understand those benefits and used the summer to redesign their classes to be more flexible. As students, we appreciate that effort.

To professors who are still doing live lectures online: please reconsider.

Live lectures make sense with in-person instruction because being in the same place at the same time is valuable. They don’t make sense with online instruction because the biggest advantage of online instruction is not having to be in the same place at the same time.

Discussion-based classes are an exception to this rule. Discussion-based classes online aren’t as good as discussion-based classes in person, but they still work pretty well, and being able to easily share links in the chat is an advantage.

Zoom was designed for meetings, and meetings are different from lectures. Note the prepositions we use. We have meetings with people. We hear lectures from people. A collaborative space where everyone’s face is on the screen makes sense when we are in discussion with others. It’s unnecessary when hearing from one person. There are lectures on YouTube with millions of views, and people learn from them just fine.

But students won’t actually watch the lectures if they aren’t live, you might think. OK, but do you really think students are watching them in any meaningful way now? For example, I am writing this article during a live Zoom talk. Because students are at home and not in the classroom, they have other priorities, which could include working to pay tuition or caring for family members.

If our webcams are off during your lecture, we are doing something else. If our webcams are on, we are still probably doing something else because we know you can’t tell which window is open on our computer screens. That’s not to say your lecture is bad or that we don’t find it interesting. There’s just other stuff to do at 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. on weekdays when living at home. Record lectures so we can listen to them in the car or while going for a walk.

Blackboard Collaborate makes recording lectures really easy on both the professor doing the recording and the students finding the recording afterwards. If your objection to recording is that everyone should have to suffer together, that’s really quite petty. It’s not that much work to record, and you’re ignoring the fact that you are paid to give lectures — while students are paying thousands of dollars to hear them.

This semester is nobody’s ideal, and that’s why it’s all the more important to make the best of a bad situation. Lean into online learning’s flexibility advantage — don’t nullify it by insisting on live lectures.