Why are we teaching face to face?

Earlier this week on the site I reviewed the big decision(s) facing universities and their governing bodies on delivery in the new year.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


One of the relevant questions is why universities did what they did in relation to September.

Why did some universities opt for a mainly online model, with others opting for “blended”? If we understand that can we understand the influences that might come to bear on the new year? And are some factors “drivers” or “motivators” of decision making, and others mere hygiene factors or limiters that might kick in if they get “too much”?

I’m not aware of any comparative study in the UK, but there’s a new preprint out in the US that tries to take an “ecological” approach, considering the influence of state, county, and university characteristics.

Mixed modeling techniques and data from 89% of US universities were deployed to assess the factors that shaped their decision to provide mostly in-person teaching from August.

As ever, preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information.

The results are fascinating. For public institutions, the proportion of state residents who voted for Donald Trump was the most powerful predictor of whether “in-person” was announced. The study also found that universities with higher tuition fees within their sector were more likely to offer in-person teaching.

Colleges with larger endowments were more likely to offer in-person teaching. This sounds confusing – on the one hand, they should have been better equipped to manage the financial challenges of potential lost enrolment.

But the authors figure that colleges with larger endowments are also more likely to provide a campus “student experience” and offer activities and events (e.g., college football), that can provide a lot of additional revenue. They also figure that colleges with larger endowments may be better able to manage the costs associated with reopening (e.g. testing).

The university’s importance to the local economy was also a substantial predictor of reopening. The authors argue that these institutions would have had to consider the economic effects of not bringing students to campus, as well as the potential community backlash.

Many expected associations were negligible. Neither staff preferences nor online readiness were ultimately associated with reopening decisions. Money and politics seemed to matter more than anything with the state proportion who voted for Trump having the biggest effect size.

And decision-making was completely unrelated to cumulative infection and related mortality rates – neither the severity of the local situation nor impact modelling appears to have played a role in these decisions.

Can we read anything across to the UK from this? Maybe. It’s hard to find a university that officially made decisions on the basis of its online readiness or potential community infection impact – but perhaps that’s because almost the entire sector made the same decision.

The role of market competition and the expressed preference of the UK PM for face-to-face teaching has been speculated about at length – and many of the issues surrounding money are politics in the Scottish HE system are speculated about in this BBC 1 Scotland investigation.

One response to “Why are we teaching face to face?

  1. “Why are we teaching face to face?”

    From my conversation with a senior manager in my University “because the Government required us to”, in part because of the fear of looking as if they, the ‘Government’, didn’t care, and in part to ensure they wouldn’t have to pick up the entire cost of shutting down H.E.

    The threats included ‘reviews’ of Research funding apparently, and Universities with huge building projects and related debts were desperate to avoid any funding shortfall, equally not just course fee’s for ‘bums on seats’ but the huge income from residential letting is essential to ‘stay afloat’ for many, not much of that income stream would come in if studying from home over the internet was the only way.

    Some Trades Unionists also postulate it’s the perfect storm to force a significant reduction in ‘useless degree’ courses and the ‘universities’ that teach them, thus removing cheaply those that have devalued University education by fulfilling Bliar’s 50% desires and keeping young people off the dole.

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