How does on-site teaching feel during a pandemic?

Original article was published by Luca Benedetto on Artificial Intelligence on Medium


I am currently pursuing a PhD in an Italian university, and part of my job is to give lectures. Specifically, I am a lecturer assistant for a course named “Artificial Intelligence for security”.

With the beginning of the new academic year, my university decided to adopt a blended approach: for the first time since March, it opened up to some students to attend the lectures in person. Due to covid restrictions, only half of the seats in each classroom are available and this means that there is not enough room for all the students. Thus, some courses are still held completely online, as in the previous semester. Although this approach is far from perfect — especially for the lack of interactions on campus — many professors and students got used to it. Most importantly, all the students are at the same level and interact in the same way with the instructor.

Other courses, including mine, are held in a blended format: the lecturer gives the class in person and students are welcome to physically attend the session. At the same time, though, it is live streamed so that students can also take part remotely. Also, all the lectures are recorded.

At first, I was extremely excited to hear that students would be back on campus. When I heard about this blended approach, though, I was kind of worried and, after the first couple of lectures, I can confirm my initial impression. I am not a huge fan of this approach and it makes me kinda uncomfortable. The problem is not that I’m being recorded — that’s okay — nor that I’m being live streamed — I’m okay with that as well. The problem is the difference between the interactions that I have with on-site students and the interaction (or lack thereof) with the students who are attending remotely. This problem is not due to the specific software platform chosen by my university, it is due to the very nature of this blended format. Also, while I believe that this difference is important for all the sessions, I think that this is an issue especially for practical sessions.

To put it simply, you do not get the same feedback from remote students and it is very difficult to understand how the course is going for them. And this is what I am worried about. Indeed, if I knew that all remote students had chosen to attend the session from home — having the chance to come to the university and deciding not to do so — I would not worry. Unfortunately, though, that’s not the case. Some students did not have the chance to come to Italy at all due to covid travel restrictions and have no other options but to attend the courses online. Moreover, live streaming is the best case scenario for them, since some might be unable to attend the sessions live due to different time zones.

I have been thinking about this problem and about possible solutions, but I really cannot see any. My concern is that universities might be creating a huge disparity between on-site and remote students. This difference is not only the absence of the “campus life” — which is on itself a huge limitation — but most importantly might affect the quality of teaching and of teacher’s support for some students.
It is up to both instructor and students to adapt to this new — and strange — scenario and we have to avoid as much as possible the differences between online and on-site students. If we do not work in that direction, we might create some huge disparities in the quality of the teaching provided to different students.