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Hybrid Versus Remote Teaching

September 10, 2020


Which is best for students?

Cropped from Wikipedia src

Moshe Vardi holds multiple professorships at Rice University. He is also the Senior Editor of Communications of the ACM. His is therefore a voice to be reckoned with in the current debate over how best to teach during the pandemic. Much of the debate is over whether all should hear his voice the same way, or some hear it in the classroom while others hear it remotely.

Today we note his recent column for Medium advocating the former. Then I (Ken) give some of my own impressions.

His September 5 column followed an August 8 opinion given to the Rice student newspaper. Both begin with concern over the conflict between safety and value for students. Much of the value of college—most according to statistics he cites—comes from being collegial: outside the classroom. But many such activities, not only evening parties but informal games and gatherings, are the most unsafe.

We will focus however on what Moshe says about the nature of instruction for lecture courses. Certainly for laboratory courses there is a sharp trade-off between safety and in-person interaction. But we focus here on what he says about the nature of teaching in the lecture hall, where one can take safety as a given requirement.

An In-Person Remoteness Paradox

I have just returned from sabbatical at the University at Buffalo (UB) and am teaching this fall a small elective 4xx/5xx theory course. It has 15 students, smaller than the 25 in the hypothetical class Moshe describes but of the same order of magnitude. In the spring I will be teaching a larger undergraduate course which is also on target for his concerns. I have taught such a class every spring for a decade. While this assignment is not a new to me, the issue of safety raises tough choices about the delivery options. My options are:

  1. remote-only;

  2. in-person only;

  3. hybrid use of 1 and 2 for designated course components;

  4. hybrid-flexible, meaning 1 and 2 are conducted simultaneously with students free to choose either option, even on a per-lecture basis.

I have committed to hybrid-flexible. For my current fall course, I made this commitment in early summer when there was uncertainty over in-person instruction requirements for student visas and registration. I believe that my larger course will be implemented as safely in a large room as my current course. The question is quality.

Moshe notes right away a paradox for his hypothetical class that could apply to any of modes 2–4; to include the last expressly, I’ve inserted the word “even”:

…I realized that [even] the students in the classroom will have to be communicating with me on Zoom, to be heard and recorded. All this, while both the students and I are wearing face masks. It dawned on me then that I will be conducting remote teaching in the classroom.

Business Insider source—yet another variation

In fact, I have one volunteer now in the room logging into Zoom to help with interaction from those attending remotely. This helps because my podium has less space to catch faces and detect questions right away. I do repeat questions so they are picked up in the recording and often redirect them to the class. Still, the mere fact of my not seeing faces alongside the notes and interactive drawings I am sharing makes me feel Moshe’s paradox all the time. This is even though my room allows denser spacing than at Rice, so a class of 25 could sit closer. Let me, however, say why I love stand-up teaching before addressing his paramount question of what is best for the students at this time.

From Whiteboards to Tutorials

Dick once wrote a post, “In Praise of Chalk Talks.” First, with reference to talks pre-made using PowerPoint or LaTeX slides, Dick wrote:

Such talks can be informative and easy to follow, yet sometimes PowerPoint is not well suited to giving a proof. The slides do not hold enough state for us to easily follow the argument.

Moreover, when I contributed to the open-problems session of the workshop at IAS in Princeton, NJ that we covered two years ago, Avi Wigderson insisted that everyone use chalk, not slides. I’ve used slides for UB’s data-structures and programming languages courses, but I think students benefit from seeing proofs and problem-solving ideas grow.

I find furthermore that the feel of immersion in a process of discovery is enhanced by an in-person presence. I had this in mind when I followed Dick’s post with a long one imagining Kurt Gödel expounding the distinctive points of his set theory (joint with Paul Bernays and John von Neumann), all on one chalkboard. My classes are not as interactive as in that post, but I prepare junctures in lectures for posing questions and doing a little bit of Socratic method. And I try to lead this with body language as well as voice inflection, whether at a whiteboard or drawing on hard paper via a document camera.

Still, it exactly this “extra” that gets diminished for those who are remote. When I share my screen for notes or a drawing (both in MathCha), they see my movements only in a small second window if at all. They do hear my voice—but I do not hear theirs even if they unmute themselves. Nor can I read their state of following as I do in the room. Without reiterating the safety factor as Moshe does, I can reformulate his key question as:

Does the non-uniformity and inequality of hybrid delivery outweigh the benefits of making in-person instruction available to some?

I must quickly add that in-person teaching is perceived as a collective need at UB. The web form I filled for Spring 2021 stated that some in-person classes must be available at all levels, 1xx through 7xx. I am happy to oblige. But the fact that I chose a flexible structure, especially in a small class, does allow the students to give opinion on this question, as well as on something Moshe says next:

“Remote teaching” actually can do a better job of reproducing the intimacy that we take for granted in small classes.

Toward this end, I am implementing a remote version of the tutorial system I was part of for two eight-week terms at Oxford while a junior fellow of Merton College. When Cambridge University declared already last May that there would be no in-person lectures all the way through summer 2021, this is because most lectures there are formally optional anyway. The heart of required teaching is via weekly tutorial hours in groups of one-to-three students. They are organized separately by each of thirty-plus constituent colleges rather than by department-centered staff, so the numbers are divided to be manageable. In my math-course tutorials the expectation was for each student to present a solved problem and participate in discussions that build on the methods.

I am doing this every other week this fall, alternating with weeks of problem-set review that will be strictly optional and classed as enhanced office hours. All UB office hours must be remote anyway. The tutorial requirement was agreed by student voice-vote in a tradeoff with lowering the material in timed exams to compensate for differences in home situations. After a few weeks of this, the class will take stock for opinions on which delivery options work best. UB has already committed to being remote-only after Thanksgiving, and it is possible that the on-campus medical situation will trigger an earlier conversion anyway.

Open Problems

We would like to throw the floor open for comment on Moshe’s matters that we’ve highlighted and on his other opinions about the university mission amid the current crisis more generally.

[edited to reflect that at Rice too, the hypothetical class could be in any of modes 2–4, and that spacing is further than in my UB room. “Princeton IAS” -> “IAS in Princeton, NJ”]

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