Some Tentative Suggestions for Safely Restarting In-Person Teaching at Universities
Universities around the country are pondering the question of whether and how to resume in-person teaching during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. In-person instruction has major advantages over the online version many of us have experienced this spring. But it would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore the risks of spreading Covid-19. I don’t have anything approaching a comprehensive solution to this dilemma. But in this post, I offer some tentative suggestions for how in-person teaching can be restarted, while minimizing risk, while also avoiding creating an unbearable dystopian on-campus environment.
I readily acknowledge two important caveats to these suggestions. First, I am not an epidemiologist, and it is possible that new epidemiological evidence will invalidate some or even all of these ideas. Second, different institutions have different needs; ideas that may work well for some schools may be non-starters for others. My goal here is not to present a comprehensive one-size-fits-all plan that works for every institution, but rather to offer suggestions that a variety of schools could potentially consider. It may turn out that individual schools can adopt some of these ideas, but not others.
The proposals I offer rely on three key ideas. First, the advantages of in-person education are far greater for some types of classes than for others. Second, there are ways to protect faculty and students who face especially high risks without moving to a fully on-line model for the classes they teach or take. Third, discussions of the risk of in-person classes tend to implicitly assume an unrealistic baseline in which students will completely or almost completely avoid risk if they stay off-campus.
I. Exploiting Variation in the Relative Advantages of In-Person Teaching
For reasons I describe here, in-person teaching has important advantages over online instruction. Among other things, in-person teaching makes it easier for faculty to make eye contact and otherwise gauge the reactions of students, and to make sure that the latter are “getting” what the instructor is saying. Being in class also makes it easier for students to stay focused and effectively interact with each other.
I base these conclusions not only on my (admittedly limited) experience this semester, but also on years of prior experience teaching law students and undergraduates at several schools in the United States, and also at universities in Argentina and China. That experience includes a number of online classes and lectures, as well as many in-person ones. Still, these conclusions would be worth little if they were just my idiosyncratic views, based on perhaps unrepresentative experiences. However, recent surveys of students indicate that they too overwhelmingly prefer in-person instruction, and believe it makes it easier for them to learn.
I have not seen a good coronavirus-era survey of faculty members on this subject. But a 2018 survey found that large majorities are skeptical that online instruction can be as effective as the in-person kind. For example, “[e]ighty percent of instructors said digital courses were less effective than face-to-face classes in their ability to reach ‘at-risk’ students, and 65 percent said the same about ‘rigorously engag[ing] students in course material and ability to maintain academic integrity (60 percent).”
But these differences do not affect all courses equally. In particular, for reasons I summarized in my earlier post on this subject, the advantages of in-person courses over online ones are much less significant for small courses with, say, 15 students or fewer, than for large ones. In a small class, it’s far easier for the professor to keep track of all the students online, make eye contact with them, and ensure everyone is focused and able to participate. It’s also easier for students to interact with each other.
Thus, schools can potentially keep smaller classes online, while reserving limited classroom space for bigger ones. This may seem like the exact opposite of what might be useful
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