Going virtual without a net

Is the coronavirus-based transition from face to face to on-line instruction yet another step to down-grading instructional quality?

It is certainly a strange time in the world of higher education. In response to the current corona virus pandemic, many institutions have quickly, sometimes within hours and primarily by fiat, transitioned from face to face to distance (web-based) instruction. After a little confusion, it appears that laboratory courses are included as well, which certainly makes sense. While virtual laboratories can be built (see our own virtual laboratories in biology)  they typically fail to capture the social setting of a real laboratory.  More to the point, I know of no published studies that have measured the efficacy of such on-line experiences in terms of the ideas and skills students master.

Many instructors (including this one) are being called upon to carry out a radical transformation of instructional practice “on the fly.” Advice is being offered from all sides, from University administrators and technical advisors (see as an example Making Online Teaching a Success).  It is worth noting that much (all?) of this advice falls into the category of “personal empiricism”, suggestions based on various experiences but unsupported  by objective measures of educational outcomes – outcomes that include the extent of student engagement as well as clear descriptions of i) what students are expected to have mastered, ii) what they are expected to be able to do with their knowledge, and iii) what they can actually do. Again, to my knowledge there have been few if any careful comparative studies on learning outcomes achieved via face to face versus virtual teaching experiences. Part of the issue is that many studies on teaching strategies (including recent work on what has been termed “active learning” approaches) have failed to clearly define what exactly is to be learned, a necessary first step in evaluating their efficacy.  Are we talking memorization and recognition, or the ability to identify and apply core and discipline-specific ideas appropriately in novel and complex situations?

At the same time, instructors have not had practical training in using available tools (zoom, in my case) and little in the way of effective support. Even more importantly, there are few published and verified studies to inform what works best in terms of student engagement and learning outcomes. Even if there were clear “rules of thumb” in place to guide the instructor or course designer, there has not been the time or resources needed to implement these changes. The situation is not surprising given that the quality of university level educational programs rarely attracts critical analysis, or the necessary encouragement, support, and recognition needed to make it a departmental priority (see Making education matter in higher education).  It seems to me that the current situation is not unlike attempting to perform a complicated surgery after being told to watch a 3 minute youtube video. Unsurprisingly patient (student learning) outcomes may not be pretty.     

Much of what is missing from on-line instructional scenarios is the human connection, the ability of an instructor to pay attention to how students respond to the ideas presented. Typically this involves reading the facial expressions and body language of students, and through asking challenging (Socratic) questions – questions that address how the information presented can be used to generate plausible explanations or to predict the behavior of a system. These are interactions that are difficult, if not impossible to capture in an on-line setting.

While there is much to be said for active engagement/active learning strategies (see Hake 1998, Freeman et al 2014 and Theobald et al 2020), one can easily argue that all effective learning scenarios involve an instructor who is aware and responsive to students’ pre-existing knowledge. It is also important that the instructor has the willingness (and freedom) to entertain their questions, confusions, and the need for clarification (saying it a different way), or when it may be necessary to revisit important, foundational, ideas and skills – a situation that can necessitate discarding planned materials and “coaching up” students on core concepts and their application. The ability of the instructor to customize instruction “on the fly” is one of the justifications for hiring disciplinary experts in instructional positions, they (presumably) understand the conceptual foundations of the materials they are called upon to present. In its best (Socratic) form, the dialog between student and instructor drives students (and instructors) to develop a more sophisticated and metacognitive understanding of the web of ideas involved in most scientific explanations.

In the absence of an explicit appreciation of the importance of the human interactions between instructor and student, interactions already strained in the context of large enrollment courses, we are likely to find an increase in the forces driving instruction to become more and more about rote knowledge, rather than the higher order skills associated with the ability to juggle ideas, identifying those needed and those irrelevant to a specific situation.  While I have been trying to be less cynical (not a particularly easy task in the modern world), I suspect that the flurry of advice on how to carry out distance learning is more about avoiding the need to refund student fees than about improving students’ educational outcomes (see Colleges Sent Students Home. Now Will They Refund Tuition?)

Balancing research prestige, human decency, and educational outcomes.


Or why do academic institutions shield predators?  Many working scientists, particularly those early in their careers or those oblivious to practical realities, maintain an idealistic view of the scientific enterprise. They see science as driven by curious, passionate, and skeptical scholars, working to build an increasingly accurate and all encompassing understanding of the material world and the various phenomena associated with it, ranging from the origins of the universe and the Earth to the development of the brain and the emergence of consciousness and self-consciousness (1).  At the same time, the discipline of science can be difficult to maintain (see PLoS post:  The pernicious effects of disrespecting the constraints of science). Scientific research relies on understanding what people have already discovered and established to be true; all too often, exploring the literature associated with a topic can reveal that one’s brilliant and totally novel “first of its kind” or “first to show” observation or idea is only a confirmation or a modest extension of someone else’s previous discovery. That is the nature of the scientific enterprise, and a major reason why significant new discoveries are rare and why graduate students’ Ph.D. theses can take years to complete.

Acting to oppose a rigorous scholarly approach are the real life pressures faced by working scientists: a competitive landscape in which only novel observations  get rewarded by research grants and various forms of fame or notoriety in one’s field, including a tenure-track or tenured academic position. Such pressures encourage one to distort the significance or novelty of one’s accomplishments; such exaggerations are tacitly encouraged by the editors of high profile journals (e.g. Nature, Science) who seek to publish “high impact” claims, such as the claim for “Arsenic-life” (see link).  As a recent and prosaic example, consider a paper that claims in its title that “Dietary Restriction and AMPK Increase Lifespan via Mitochondrial Network and Peroxisome Remodeling” (link), without mentioning (in the title) the rather significant fact that the effect was observed in the nematode C. elegans, whose lifespan is typically between 300 to 500 hours and which displays a trait not found in humans (and other vertebrates), namely the ability to assume a highly specialized “dauer” state that can survive hostile environmental conditions for months. Is the work wrong or insignificant? Certainly not, but it is presented to the unwary (through the Harvard Gazette under the title, “In pursuit of healthy aging: Harvard study shows how intermittent fasting and manipulating mitochondrial networks may increase lifespan,” with the clear implication that people, including Harvard alumni, might want to consider the adequacy of their retirement investments


Such pleas for attention are generally quickly placed in context and their significance evaluated, at least within the scientific community – although many go on to stimulate the economic health of the nutritional supplement industry.  Lower level claims often go unchallenged, just part of the incessant buzz associated with pleas for attention in our excessively distracted society (see link).  Given the reward structure of the modern scientific enterprise, the proliferation of such claims is not surprising.  Even “staid” academics seek attention well beyond the immediate significance of their (tax-payer funded) observations. Unfortunately, the explosively expanding size of the scientific enterprise makes policing such transgressions (generally through peer review or replication) difficult or impossible, at least in the short term.

The hype and exaggeration associated with some scientific claims for attention are not the most distressing aspect of the quest for “reputation.”  Rather, there are growing number of revelations of academic institutions protecting those guilty of abusing their dependent colleagues. These reflect how scientific research teams are organized. Most scientific studies involve groups of people working with one another, generating data, testing ideas, and eventually publishing their observations and conclusions, and speculating on their broader implications.

Research groups can vary greatly in size.  In some areas, they involve isolated individuals, whether thinkers (theorists) or naturalists, in the mode of Darwin and Wallace.  In other cases, these are larger and include senior researchers, post-doctoral  fellows, graduate students, technicians, undergraduates,  and even high school students. Such research groups can range from the small (2 to 3 people) to the significantly larger (~20-50 people); the largest of such groups are associated mega-projects, such as the human genome project and the Large Hadron Collider-based search for the Higgs boson (see: Physics paper sets record with more than 5,000 authors).  A look at this site [link] describing the human genome project reflects two aspects of such mega-science: 1) while many thousands of people were involved [see Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome], generally only the “big names” are singled out for valorization (e.g., receiving a Nobel Prize). That said, there would be little or no progress without general scientific community that evaluates and extends ideas and observations. In this context, “lead investigators” are charged primarily with securing the funds needed to mobilize such groups, convincing funders that the work is significant; it is members of the group that work out the technical details and enable the project to succeed.

As with many such social groups, there are systems in play that serve to establish the status of the individuals involved – something necessary (apparently) in a system in which individuals compete for jobs, positions, and resources.  Generally, one’s status is established through recommendations from others in the field, often the senior member(s) of one’s research group or the (generally small) group of senior scientists who work in the same or a closely related area. The importance of professional status is particularly critical in academia, where the number of senior (e.g. tenured or tenure-track professorships) is limited. The result is a system that is increasingly susceptible to the formation of clubs, membership in which is often determined by who knows who, rather than who has done what (see Steve McKnight’s “The curse of committees and clubs”). Over time, scientific social status translates into who is considered productive, important, trustworthy, or (using an oft-misused term) brilliant. Achieving status can mean putting up with abusive and unwanted behaviors (particularly sexual). Examples of this behavior have recently been emerging with increasing frequency (which has been extensively described elsewhere: see Confronting Sexual Harassment in Science; More universities must confront sexual harassment; What’s to be done about the numerous reports of faculty misconduct dating back years and even decades?; Academia needs to confront sexism; and The Trouble With Girls’: The Enduring Sexism in Science).

So why is abusive behavior tolerated?  One might argue that this reflects humans’ current and historical obsession with “stars,” pharaohs, kings, and dictators as isolated geniuses who make things work. Perhaps the most visible example of such abused scientists (although there are in fact many others : see History’s Most Overlooked Scientists) is Rosalind Franklin, whose data was essential to solving the structure of double stranded DNA, yet whose contributions were consistently and systematically minimized, a clear example of sexual marginalization. In this light, many is the technician who got an experiment to “work,” leading to their research supervisor’s being awarded the prizes associated with the breakthrough (2).

Amplifying the star effect is the role of research status at the institutional level;  an institution’s academic ranking is often based upon the presence of faculty “stars.” Perhaps surprisingly to those outside of academia, an institution’s research status, as reflected in the number of stars on staff, often trumps its educational effectiveness, particularly with undergraduates, that is the people who pay the bulk of the institution’s running costs. In this light, it is not surprising that research stars who display various abusive behavior (often to women) are shielded by institutions from public censure.

So what is to be done? My own modest proposal (to be described in more detail in a later post) is to increase the emphasis on institution’s (and departments within institutions) effectiveness at undergraduate educational success. This would provide a counter-balancing force that could (might?) place research status in a more realistic context.

a footnote or two:

  1.  on the assumption that there is nothing but a material world.
  2. Although I am no star, I would acknowledge Joe Dent, who worked out the whole-mount immunocytochemical methods that we have used extensively in our work over the years).
  3. Thanks to Becky for editorial comments as well as a dramatic reading!