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Things I got wrong: in-person versus online

We are three weeks into our clinical trials course for the UMBC graduate program. This remark will surprise absolutely no one, but: it was refreshing to see a classroom full of attentive, engaged students, interrupting, asking questions, having a dialogue, others jumping in, etc. Alas, I cannot take any credit for the interactions, as we have guest lecturers on for most weeks.

Regardless, the course has reminded me about how absolutely wrong I was back in December 2019, when during a post-conference The link is for the 2019 ASH Annual Meeting abstract book, ASH being the American Society of Hematology, and I am only now realizing that — in what could be described as our profession’s version of burning man, which is actually quite fitting for an organization called ASH — they tear down the conference website each year to make a new one. So, the 2019 version is no more, but here is one for the 65th annual meeting in December 2023 although if you go to the website after December 2023 I am sure it will point you to the 66th and beyond. I could have linked to the Internet Archive version of the website from 2019 instead — in fact, here you go — but why relinquish myself of the opportunity for that burning man’s ash pun? dinner I stood on my soapbox and wondered in amazing why we were still wasting our time meeting in person once per year like barbarians, when we could in fact be having continuous virtual conversations on Zoom. Timely spread of scientific information and all that.

Well, I have apologized — in person! — to everyone who had to suffer through my Orlando diatribe, because the last 3 years have shown that while video conferencing may rightfully replace most business calls and other transactional meetings, it is absolutely abysmal for education for all parties involved. And it’s not just that any kind of non-verbal communication is lost, it is that even spoken language is stilted, muted, suppressed. With the slide-up-front, speaker-in-the-corner layout that is so common for lectures, you may as well be pre-recording it. It makes absolutely no difference.

And, attending a few online lectures every month myself, it is hard to decide what is worse: having it be completely online and trading off the quality of the lecture for more opportunity for interaction, or watching a live/hybrid lecture and being completely shut out from the discussion (because the in-person attendees take priority when it comes time to ask questions, and rightfully so).

Even at the most basic practical level: technology failure with an online lecture means no lecture; technology failure in-person means, at worst, using the whiteboard and interacting more, which actually makes me wish for more technology to fail. And if you absolutely need to have the slides to make your points, just print them out for your own reference, and share them beforehand for the students to view on their own screens, of which they will have many.

Craig Mod had similar thoughts this week about work in general:

After the last couple of weeks of in-person work, I have to say: Some things simply can’t be done as efficiently — or at all — unless done in person. The bandwidth of, and fidelity of, being in the same room — even, maybe especially, during breaks and downtime, but during work periods, too, of course — of being able to pass objects back and forth, to have zero latency in conversation between multiple people. To not fuss with connections or broken software (Zoom, a scourge of computing, abjectly terrible software (I prefer … Google Meet (!) by a mile)) or cameras that don’t allow for true eye contact — where everyone’s gaze is broken and off and distracted. To dispatch with all of those jittery half-measures of remote collaboration and swim in the warm waters of in-person mind-melding is a privilege for sure, and a gift.

Education is one of those types of work that can not easily be replicated online. AR/VR being a big and obvious caveat here, but that will take a while. For evidence, look no further than the persistence of the physical university campus despite the plethora of free and paid online options. Were it not for the in-person factor, the higher education equivalent of The New York Times would have gobbled up the market by now. I’ll know the tide has turned once Harvard and Yale — which would be my first proxies for the NYT and WaPo of higher ed — start investing more in their online offerings to the detriment of in-person experience.

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