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

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.