I came to this conclusion in the middle of the night by worrying at the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous learning. (Yeah, I know, Tony, get a life). This distinction is getting a lot of attention at the moment due to emergency remote learning.
Now let me say immediately that in teaching, it is what is done in practice, not what may be superior in theory, that matters, but I make this deliberately provocative statement, because I am hoping it will shed light on some confusion about face-to-face teaching, online learning, and synchronous and asynchronous teaching.
Face-to-face teaching by definition is synchronous AND, more importantly, place-based. Everyone has to be together at the same time and place. Online learning though can be synchronous (e.g. through a Zoom lecture), OR asynchronous (through, for instance a learning management system).
We know that there are certain educational advantages of asynchronous learning (opportunity for more time on task, ability to repeat the experience through recording and playback, and availability to study any time and anywhere).
Thus there are benefits of online learning that do not exist in face-to-face teaching, whereas there are no benefits in face-to-face teaching that could not exist in online teaching.
Ah, I hear you say, but that ignores the unique benefits of face-to-face teaching, the ‘affordances’ of people being together at the same time and place, such as the heightened emotional context (think rock concerts and sporting events, or, in the case of teaching, an inspired lecture and heated discussion that follows.)
Certainly, in practice, what makes teaching effective in either mode are the conditions within that mode. In other words, you can do online learning well or badly. The same applies to face-to-face teaching. Badly designed online learning (hello, emergency remote learning) will be worse than a good face-to-face lecture. However, you cannot make face-to-face teaching itself by definition asynchronous, so all those potential benefits of asynchronous learning are lost.
Also, it should be noted that you do not have to be online to learn asynchronously. Books are an asynchronous medium. Students learned asynchronously long before computers were invented; they did homework.
Finally, synchronous/asynchronous is not the only dimension that matters. There is another, independent dimension, broadcast/communicative, that we should also be considering (see Teaching in a Distance, Chapter 7.5). A major structural distinction is between ‘broadcast’ media that are primarily one-to-many and one-way, and those media that are primarily many-to-many or ‘communicative’, allowing for two-way or multiple communication connections. Communicative media include those that give equal ‘power’ of communication between multiple end users.
However, there is no obvious advantage for face-to-face teaching in this dimension, either. Both these elements can exist in face-to-face and online learning. However, we need to pay as much attention to these elements of teaching as to the synchronous/asynchronous dimension. Are we focusing on broadcasting from one to many; or on everyone in the group communicating with each other? If so, which medium is the most appropriate, and under what conditions?
Why does it matter?
The logically superior benefits of online learning matter because it forces us to examine some common misconceptions.
First: synchronous learning is not unique or synonymous to face-to-face teaching; synchronous learning can also be done online.
Second: we need to focus then on the affordances of being in the same place physically and at the same time, to justify the inconvenience and cost, (and the risk with Covid-19 or even the flu or common cold), and the loss of the affordances from learning asynchronously. In particular, what does same-time, same-place group work add to individual study, and when does it have to be face-to-face, given that we can have both synchronous and asynchronous meetings online? Are we maximising ‘the group all together’ experience when we bring students together? What are the benefits of one-on-one, face-to-face interactions between an instructor and a student compared with asynchronous communication? Under what conditions can we justify face-to-face presence?
Third: it is not either/or: we can have face-to-face, group-based learning, and online study that either follows up or prepares for the face-to-face group meeting. Group work can be done effectively online, as well as individual study. But we still come back to asking what determines when group work is best done face-to-face, again taking into account the convenience of online learning?
There are of course probably good answers to all these questions, and these will vary depending on the subject matter and the needs of different students (not to mention the convenience of administrators). But they do need to be asked and answered by each instructor.
What we can take away from this discussion is that it is not online learning that now needs to justify itself, but face-to-face teaching. So go ahead!
We can probably learn a lot from watching sports. There is nothing to beat the experience of being in a packed stadium during an important and exciting match. I was at Wembley in 1966 when England beat Germany in extra time to win the World Cup. It was the most exciting experience of my life, even though I didn’t see the actual winning goals because I was at the other end of the ground. (I had to wait to get home to see them on television – they did get shown a lot in 1966).
I was also in Vancouver watching the Stanley Cup final in 1994 in local pubs – again the excitement watching synchronously but not being ‘there’ was still immense. This was synchronous but distant.
Now I watch English soccer here at home in Vancouver through a streaming service (I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan). Because of the time difference (too old to get up at 5.30 am to watch a match live), I watch the recording, but my sons in England will occasionally phone me to tell me the score before I’ve seen the recording and I’m furious with them – it’s not the same (they do love winding me up).
I don’t want to know the score in advance – it spoils the whole experience. This sometimes means sitting for nearly two hours watching an incredibly boring 0-0 draw. I only do this for Tottenham games though – DAZN does three minute highlights of each game, but again I’d rather not know the score beforehand. But I can get close to the synchronous experience watching a recording – so long as the conditions are right.
The lesson: ‘live’ is not necessarily the same as ‘synchronous’: there is an added emotional element to a live event that we should not underestimate.