Thought Experiments on Why Face-to-Face Teaching Beats On-Line Teaching: We are Humans, not Econs

May 11, 2020 at 7:00 am 19 comments

With everything moving on-line, I’m seeing more discussion about whether this on-line life might just be better. Amy Ko recently blogged (see post here) about how virtual conferences are cheaper, more accessible, and lower carbon footprint than face-to-face conferences, ending with the conclusion for her “it is hard to make the case to continue meeting in person.” My colleague, Sarita Yardi, has been tweeting about her exploration of “medium-independent classes” where she considers (see tweet here), “Trying to use the block of class time just because that’s how we’ve always taught seems like something to revisit. Less synchronous time; support short, frequent individual/small group interaction, less class time.”

It’s hard to do on-line education well. I used to study this kind of learning a lot (see post on “What I have learned about on-line collaborative learning”). I recently wrote about how we’re mostly doing emergency remote teaching, not effective on-line learning (see post here). I am concerned that moving our classes on-line will hurt the most the students who most need our help (see post here).

It should come as no surprise then that I don’t think that we know how to do on-line teaching or on-line conferences in a way that is anywhere close to the effectiveness of face-to-face learning. I agree with both Amy and Sarita’s points. I’m only focusing on learning outcomes.

Let me offer a thought experiment on why face-to-face matters. How often do you…

  • Look at the movie trailer and not watch the movie.
  • Watch the first few minutes of a show on Netflix but never finish it.
  • Start a book and give up on it.
  • Start watching a YouTube video and immediately close it or click away.

Now contrast that with: How often do you…

  • Get up from a one-on-one meeting and walk out mid-discussion.
  • Get up in the middle of a small group discussion and leave.
  • Walk out of a class during a lecture.
  • Walk out of a conference session while the speaker is still presenting (not between talks or during Q&A).

For some people, the answers to the first set are like the answers for the second set. I tried this thought experiment on my family, and my wife pointed out that she finishes every book she starts. But for most people, the first set is much more likely to happen than the second set. This is particularly hard for professors and teachers to recognize. We are good at self-regulated learning. We liked school. We don’t understand as well the people who aren’t like us.

There are a lot of people who don’t really like school. There are good reasons for members of minority groups to distrust or dislike school. Most people engage in higher-education for the economic benefit. That means that they have a huge value for the reward at the end, but they don’t particularly want to go through the process. We have to incentivize them to be part of the process.

Yes, of course, many students skip classes. Some students skip many classes. But the odds are still in favor of the face-to-face classes. If you are signed up for a face-to-face class, you are much more likely to show up for that class compared to any totally free and absolutely relevant to your interests lecture, on-campus or on-line. Enrolling in a course is a nudge.

For most people, you are much more willing to walk away from an asynchronous, impersonal event than a face-to-face, personal event. The odds of you learning from face-to-face learning are much higher simply because you are more likely to show up and less likely to walk out. It’s a great design challenge to make on-line learning opportunities just as compelling and “sticky” as face-to-face learning. We’re not there yet.

I would be all in favor of efforts to teach people to be more self-regulated. It would be great if we all were better at learning from books, lectures, and on-line resources. But we’re not. The learners with the best preparation are likely the most privileged students. They were the ones who were taught how to learn well, how to learn from school, and how to enjoy school.

Here’s a second thought experiment, for people who work at Universities. At any University, there are many interesting talks happening every week. For me, at least a couple of those talks each week are faculty candidates, which I am highly encouraged to attend. Now, they’re all on-line. How many of those did you attend when they were face-to-face, and how many do you attend on-line? My guess is that both are small numbers, but I’ll bet that the face-to-face number is at least double the on-line number. Other people see that you’re there face-to-face. There are snacks and people to visit with face-to-face. The incentives are far fewer on-line.

On-line learning is unlikely to ever be as effective as face-to-face learning. Yes, we can design great on-line learning, but we do that fighting against how most humans learn most things. Studies that show on-line learning to be as effective (or even more effective) than face-to-face classes are holding all other variables equal. But holding all other variables equal takes real effort! To get people to show up just as much, to give people as much (or more) feedback, and to make sure that the demographics of the class stay the same on-line or face-to-face — that takes significant effort which is invisible in the studies that are trying to just ask face-to-face vs on-line. The reality is that education is an economic endeavor. Yes, you can get similar learning outcomes, at a pretty high cost. At exactly the same cost, you’re unlikely to get the same learning outcomes.

We are wired to show-up and learn from face-to-face events. I would love for all of us to be better self-regulated learners, to be better at learning from books and from lecture. But we’re not Econs, we’re Humans (to use the Richard Thaler distinction). We need incentives. We need prompts to reflect, like peer instruction. We need to see and be seen, and not just through a small box on a 2-D screen.

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19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dorian Love  |  May 11, 2020 at 7:04 am

    Reblogged this on The DigiTeacher.

  • 2. bkm  |  May 11, 2020 at 8:29 am

    OK, I will bite. With your last two examples, walking out of a lecture and leaving a conference presentation, people may not physically walk out but they sure do mentally walk out. How many of us have had the experience of teaching a class knowing full well that 50% of the students are texting with their friends or surfing YouTube? I bet most of us are nodding their heads yes. I can remember some years ago, going to see a Very Famous Researcher speak as a guest in a colleague’s graduate class. This was a largish grad class at a well known university. I was sitting towards the back, and realized that not a single student back there was paying attention. They were all working on their homework.
    And at conferences, if you are not in the very front, look around you and notice how many attendees are checking their email or reading the abstracts of other presentations.
    People walk out mentally all the time from face to face meetings.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  May 11, 2020 at 8:34 am

      Is it better online? Are students paying more attention online?

      • 4. bkm  |  May 11, 2020 at 9:17 am

        I would say it is about the same. Your premise is that face to face is inherently better because people are much less likely to leave. I don’t think that is true. The same students will check out whether it is face to face or online. Physical presence does not mean mental presence.
        As for one on one meetings, I do lots of them online, and they are as difficult to extract oneself from as a physical meeting.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  May 11, 2020 at 9:20 am

          Like I said, it’s hard for professors to get it. You got my point wrong. Students are much less likely to show up, and more easily leave, and much less likely to pay attention on line.

          • 6. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 11, 2020 at 3:12 pm

            Do you have hard data on this? I’m inclined to agree with you, but the few examples I have show higher attendance (which is not synonymous with higher attention) for remote presentation.

    • 7. joensuu pogory  |  May 18, 2020 at 11:53 am

      Yeah, walking off from lecture .. it does not have anything to do with the suggested reasons. It’s just being polite. But even if you’re not physically moving out, if the content is lousy, you will focus thinking on something else.
      As a side note, it would be very good, that people vote by walking out if the content is irrelevant or bad.

  • 8. Bruce Conrad  |  May 11, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    At the limit, we are becoming a world like the one E. M. Forster described over a hundred years ago in the short story “The Machine Stops.” Lectures there are much shorter than typical university class periods.

  • 9. Kurt Eiselt  |  May 11, 2020 at 1:10 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. These words in particular: “We are good at self-regulated learning. We liked school. We don’t understand as well the people who aren’t like us.” After many years in this business, I’m still surprised by how many of my colleagues never get this.

  • 10. jsheldon  |  May 11, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    I will read this piece. I expect it will be provocative, but my reaction to the title & first few sentences I skimmed can be summed up in one word: “Duh!” It’s been my informed experience that virtual learning can serve some purposes well, especially given particular constraints. But if F2F were a realistic options, I would go with that in almost all cases.

    Now on to read how I’m naive and wrong.

    • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  May 11, 2020 at 1:31 pm

      It may not tell you much, but see Kurt’s comment.

      • 12. jsheldon  |  May 12, 2020 at 2:05 pm

        Fair. Physical school systems don’t fit everyone – that is a given. But to jump from there to virtual systems are the solution, rather than to tweaking or overhauling physically together learning experiences to work for a wider range of people is an interesting choice.

  • 13. gflint  |  May 11, 2020 at 1:50 pm

    My sample is small but the last 6 weeks have convinced me online is not optimal. By my reckoning it is terrible. I teach high school math and computer programming. I am giving 3 F’s in math for second semester. One of them was an F before the shutdown. The other two would have been Bs or Cs. In programming I have 3 Fs. I never give Fs in programming. Show up, improve a little and pass. It is a intro course not for kids going on to college CS. So here are 5 Fs (about 10% of my students) that would not have happened in a F2F environment. People who think online teaching is successful are probably self-motivated A-type personalities. This is not the typical high school kid. Online may work for the top 10% but it is the other 90% I need to be there for. That 90% is the core of our society. They like F2F. They like social interaction. They do not make good hermits.

  • 14. orcmid  |  May 11, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    For me, all of my anecdotal experiences point to whether or not there is accommodation, even inspiration, of active learning. I have seen demonstration of that range in the last 24 hours.

    I just completed an exercise class with a favorite instructor, except over Zoom instead of at the YMCA. I found myself to be far more engaged than with a higher-quality asynchronous class recorded on YouTube. The difference is pronounced. I honor the schedule of the Zoom sessions and get a terrific workout. The YouTube ones are “maybe later.”

    Last night, I observed a real-time stream from Florence Italy of a performance by Hershey Felder about Irving Berlin. I was a passive observer (and was tempted to nod off). I have seen Felder in person, with an audience in a theatrical setting, and the experience was entirely different and superior. I think some of this had to do with staging and also choice of subject. And the theatrical experience with presence of an audience is important. Actors and musicians will report that there is a palpable difference.

    When I started with computers I did not take classes and I learned from documents and access to a computer. In 1958 I learned Fortran [I] that way. In 1961, I learned the ALGOL 60 language from the specification in Comm. ACM. To this day, my preference is to see a specification, although they are less commonly available and often either too complex or inadequately simple.

    On the other hand, I have come to enjoy MOOCs and other on-line coursework, especially because of the discussion opportunities. These tend to run on a weekly-cycle format but must be asynchronous to accommodate the international spread of learners. It was startling for me, who has avoided classrooms, to learn that as I aged I had become a good student :). A benefit of learning at my own pace, however, has been the opportunity to go deeper into a subject beyond the strictures of a synchronous syllabus.

    I don’t know what this says for a wider sample of participants. It seems to me that there are two factors to consider. Age-and-experience of learners who are there by choice, and some means of active engagement.

    • 15. orcmid  |  May 11, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Having read the earlier comments more closely, I do not challenge the observations about retention and performance of students.

      Last week I took a non-interactive exercise class (delivered on Facebook). It was startling and intriguing to see the instructor perform and speak as if she could observe us. The banter was intriguing. But we were not on our webcams, as with Zoom or one of the other interactive arrangements. It was fun, although in my case the workout was not strenuous enough. I was more entertained than engaged.

  • 16. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 11, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Not all movement to remote presentation results in worse attendance:

    Our weekly research talk online has had about 2–3× the attendance that it had in person—partly because our potential attendees were scattered, with some working over 3 miles from the in-person talks, making a major transportation barrier to attendance.

    One of the public lecture series, which usually has around 100–200 attendees had over 1000 online (radius of about 50 miles made transportation a big barrier before, and the talk was particularly timely, being on viruses and vaccines). We do not have any facilities for 1000 attendees in person (we have to rent chairs and tents for graduation ceremonies).

    I’ll grant, though, that students are less likely to be engaged by Zoom lectures or prerecorded YouTube videos than by in-person classes. I certainly find videos much less engaging than in-person lectures, and the computer screen provides plenty of distractors if attention wanes.

  • […] They may be cheaper, more accessible, and have a lower carbon footprint than face-to-face conferences, but are virtual conferences “better” than meeting in person? […]

  • 18. Nyquist Tholhagen  |  May 18, 2020 at 4:27 am

    Students might well be served by compulsory attendance, but post- academic conferences/meetings are a different topic. At 55, most discussions are a waste of my time. Ideas that younger people may find fresh often have historical precedents. Some even have assumptions that I’ve learned, through a life-time of experience, must be challenged. For example, I recently participated in a climate-change discussion that turned to democratizing environmental regulations at the local level. No one in the room seemed to know that the expression “race-to-the-bottom” was popularized through exactly that experiment. I really needed that discussion to be virtual.

    Young people should be able to work out these issues themselves, as I did. They won’t become independent and critical thinkers by constantly being told what to believe. And I should be able to click away and get back to my own projects.

  • […] I think that some of this comes from a self-realization in the students that they just learn better this way. The online environment is loaded with distractions (email, Instagram, video games, etc., etc.) and in many cases, the home environment is too. Students seemed to appreciate the shared routine of coming together as a group at a time and a place. Mark Guzdial wrote about this same phenomenon recently in one of his blog columns. […]


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