(Bloomberg Opinion) — I rise to defend the classroom: that traditional venue where the students sit, the teacher declaims and the educational technology has hardly advanced in centuries. This old-fashioned arrangement has been abandoned in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, all of us, learners and teachers, have been reduced to tiles on a screen, competing for attention with all the distracting detritus of the digital age.
Let me be clear: I deny neither the dangers of the pandemic nor the utility of the virtual classroom in this moment. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge what online learning misses. Here, then, on the basis of nearly four decades of experience, is what we might call “The Case for the Classroom”:
First: Physical presence allows the instructor to read the room. A good teacher does more than stand up and lecture and answer the occasional question. The delivery of the material must be tailored, day by day and even minute by minute, to the classroom dynamic. For that, one must can read the cues. Are students confused? Have examples that have worked for years finally fallen flat?
Only by reading the room can the teacher tell who’s fully engaged and who’s giving up. Students having trouble with a topic often won’t raise their hands, in person or on Zoom. In a large class, lots of people might have the same question, but none dares ask because each fears being the only one who’s struggling. If I’m able to read this uneasiness in faces and postures, I can bring them directly into the conversation. Or I can go over in a different way what I’ve been saying, until more eyes light up with understanding.
For me, teaching isn’t just organizing information for delivery. It’s also doing all that I can to make sure that the students learn the skills or facts or theories I’m trying to impart. And teaching in a law school, where we don’t assign regular homework or problem sets, there’s no better way to know whether I’m succeeding than seeing those faces day after day.
Second: In the physical classroom, students are less likely to be distracted and more likely to learn. A 2019 study found that students taking courses online were significantly more likely than students allowed to use laptops in a traditional classroom to spend time texting, emailing, even watching videos. Research published in 2017 found that students in hybrid courses (partly online, partly in person) are significantly more likely to multitask during the online portion — and that the online multitasking reduces their cognitive engagement, which in turn reduces the amount learned. That students learn less when they’re able to access the internet during class has been confirmed by study after study.(1)
Our cognitive processing capacity is limited. If we’re texting while we’re listening, we’ll likely absorb less of what we hear than if we’re listening without texting. That’s one reason many professors don’t even allow laptops in their classrooms. They’re just too tempting: The research suggests that many students will multitask even when they know the behavior is likely to harm their grades. Yet even for frequent multitaskers, actually engaging in the behavior is sensitive to opportunity. In a face-to-face classroom, the opportunity is less, and students with a tendency to go browsing will learn more.
Yes, this research is preliminary. Much of it fails to distinguish synchronous from asynchronous learning. Besides, if education’s future is online, everyone will eventually get used to it. But my concern is the present.
Third: Humor. In the classroom, even my bad jokes can be an asset. One doesn’t want to be a standup comic — most of us couldn’t anyway — but, when properly deployed, humor can work well, clarifying examples and theories and smoothing the experience for nervous students, for whom laughter can break the tension. Research suggests, moreover, that the instructor’s classroom humor, when closely related to the material, improves student performance.(2) And the decision on where to insert the humor can be made on the fly by reading such cues as student body language.
Alas, it’s my experience that humor works poorly online, and I’ve talked to others who to agree. True, some pre-pandemic research suggests that humor in online courses has pedagogical advantages similar to those in the physical classroom. Nevertheless, long before the current crisis, experienced online instructors pointed out that in the virtual classroom, humor plays differently and requires more effort.
Fourth and finally: Because the topic is on the nation’s lips, let me say a word about diversity and inclusion. It’s been my experience that many faculty members who happen to be not white or not male will confess to a felt need to establish instant command in the classroom, to explode in the first few days whatever lingering biases some students might possess that relate competence to gender or skin color. That command is more readily established by a dominating professor in front of the room than by a face on a screen. In this case, I’ve no data to support my contention, but I’m confident that it’s true.
Again, none of what I’ve said is meant to deny that the pandemic forces hard choices upon us. Nor am I arguing that the online classroom can’t deliver measurable results similar to those of the physical classroom. But there are delicate complexities to teaching and learning that are hard to quantify. Let’s weigh them as we debate how to move forward.
(1) In fairness, some researchers argue that the work so far has not established a causal link.
(2) This assumes that the jokes are not offensive.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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