We are now eight months into the coronavirus pandemic with little sign that most countries will be able to get it under control without a vaccine, which means that many countries are now attempting to return to normal while managing the virus. For most countries I predict this is going to be disastrous, and even countries that have not yet fully reopened – like France and the UK – are seeing resurgence in cases with the potential for a return of a major epidemic. But some of these countries are planning to reopen schools and universities in the Autumn, despite the risks, on the assumption that personal protective measures can contain those risks. I have expressed before my discomfort with personal protective measures, which will never be as effective at containing an infectious disease as good policy and robust treatment access, but this seems to be the dangerous path most countries have chosen to take. Given this, many universities are now trying to figure out how to return to in-person classes in Autumn, and many professors seem to want to do this. However, after a full semester of teaching entirely online I am unsure why there is so much pressure to return to in-person teaching and supervision. If we are going to move to a new normal I think we should consider the possibility that for some (many?) classes online is better than in-person, and here I would like to outline some of the benefits of online teaching and supervision.

Brief background

I teach classes in basic statistics, basic statistical programming, and some advanced statistics courses, to graduate students who are primarily mature age students working in health and studying part time. Here in Japan the first semester starts in April and in February I pushed for us to go entirely online, because I was working with Chinese colleagues on the coronavirus response in China and I knew how bad it was going to get. Our university already had a partially online component of teaching, to enable working people to take classes – basically students can choose to take an online or physical class for all of our required and many of our elective classes, and those who take the online component get to view recordings of the lectures, along with pre-recorded slides, and a slide set translated into Japanese. We have an online forum for asking questions and students can also join the physical class if they are taking the online component but able to get free time (this doesn’t happen much). Given our university already had this experience with online teaching it was very easy to switch entirely online and the faculty agreed, so we had about 6 weeks to prepare. This was a very good decision: many of our students are clinicians and some work directly in covid-19 treatment and care, so having them gather physically in a room is extremely high risk.

I originally planned to just switch the physical classes to the online component, upload last year’s recordings and use the lectures as a Q&A, but students don’t always have time for this, so I started teaching the classes in zoom (using slide sharing and so on), and I have found many aspects of lecturing in zoom to be superior to physical lecturing. I also reconfigured the statistical programming class to be done in zoom using breakout rooms. The statistical programming class was traditionally taught entirely physically, with me and two teaching assistants (TAs) running around the class answering questions and then reproducing errors on the teacher’s computer to explain specific problems that are relevant to everyone’s education. I could not physically do this anyway this year because I dislocated my kneecap in mid-February and had surgery in mid-April, but even if I had been able to, I found ways to make this work better in zoom. My students this year are learning more and better than last year, using zoom.

Benefits of online teaching

In my experience of first semester there are many aspects of holding classes online that are superior to holding them physically. In no particular order, here they are.

Reduced commuting: Some of my students join the lecture from their workplace, or from locations that vary weekly depending on their schedule. They don’t have to commute, so physically it’s much easier for them. Commuting in Japan is obviously high-risk for coronavirus, but it also reduces pressure on students if they don’t have to bounce from work to school to home. I think surveys in Japan have shown an overwhelming desire for normal workers to continue working from home and commuting is a part of the reason for this.

Better quality lecture materials: Nobody has to squint from the back of the room, or worry about audibility, or any of that stuff. They can see the slides clearly when I share them and can hear my voice clearly, plus can control the audio when they need to. The lecture recordings are also better quality, because instead of recording me standing there against a white screen in a dark room with dubious audio the students can clearly see the high quality of the slides and hear my voice directly in the microphone. This is especially useful for the programming class because it was very hard for students to read the Stata code on the lecture screen but in the zoom lectures it’s very clear

Disability friendly: We have one student who has mobility issues and would find getting into class very exhausting and time consuming, but none of this is a problem for them with zoom. Students also don’t have to suffer a one-size-fits-all computer arrangement for the programming class, and can use whatever ergonomic keyboard or weird screen setup they want. They can also learn in their native operating system and now I can teach in both – I have a mac and one of my TAs has a PC, so we can share screens to show differences (plus we can share students’ screens so we can learn how to work in their setup).

Full computer access: In the past I taught on a shared work laptop in a lecture theatre, or on the bodgy old PC in the computer room, with no access to my own full suite of materials. But now I have my entire setup available, so I can dig back through old files to show code I wrote years ago, or data examples that respond directly to a question rather than being prepared ahead. Obviously I could do this if I brought my laptop to the class but it’s so much more convenient to do this in my own office with all my stuff already set up (and it also means I can access external hard drives connected to my office desktop, etc). Students, too, can share the data they’re working with for their projects if they need to.

Shy and quiet students win: Asian students are generally shy and retiring and don’t like to ask questions but it is much easier for them if their face is not shown or they can do it in a chat window. Questions asked in chat can also be shelved and returned to later (since they’re written down where they can’t be forgotten) or answered by TAs in chat or by other students – in the programming class if someone asks a question we aren’t sure about one of the TAs can google the solution (or dig around in help files) and post the answer in chat while I continue managing the class. I think this makes Q&A better, and also encourages more class involvement by shy or quiet students. In my main stats class this isn’t a huge problem (since it’s just straight lectures) but even there being able to hide your face and/or voice helps shy, insecure, uncertain or scared students, all of whom can be found in a stats class. Also note that in a more interactive class a lecturer could strictly control students’ speaking time using the mute button, and I think in some systems can monitor how much students have spoken so that they can see directly if they’re allowing one student to dominate the class.

Convenience: Students can eat while they watch the lecture, can drink things other than water, can use their own bathroom when they want to, and can even sleep if they need to, knowing they won’t be caught out, won’t be embarrassing themselves in front of peers or lecturers, and won’t miss the class, since it’s recorded. Students are in general more comfortable in their own home or study or in the environment they chose for study, than in a lecture theatre with students they don’t know.

Recorded classes: My older students in particular find the recording of the programming classes very helpful. They have told me they review the same sections over and over while they try to figure out what to do for certain problems and tasks. Also for mathematics they can simply rewind and play again, which is a huge benefit for the slower or less confident students. I think the security of knowing they can’t miss anything makes it easier for students to take in the class, especially since it’s in their second language

Overseas and traveling students can participate: Three of our students were unable to enter Japan because the borders slammed shut the week before they were scheduled to arrive, and one more just slipped through. Given that most of our students are basically self-quarantining to avoid infection, two of our students are eager to return to their home country early so they can take these protective measures in a better environment. Online classes enables these students to continue studying even though they’re overseas. It enables us to maintain a diverse class even though we have pandemic border closures, and potentially in future to extend our classes to students who cannot get a scholarship and cannot afford to study in Japan. This is good!

Given these benefits, I’m not sure why people are eager to return to in-person teaching.

Online supervision and anti-harassment countermeasures

For me, supervising students usually involves working through statistical problems, often on a computer in my office. Last year I investigated ways to set up a shared, easily-accessible screen in my office so that we didn’t have to hunker around a laptop and more than two people could see a person’s work at a time, but the administrative details made me give up. This year of course that’s not a problem – it’s easy for me to supervise groups of students and share screens between them if I want. Nonetheless I still find in-person supervision preferable to online – visual and body-language cues are helpful for understanding whether someone understands what you’re saying, and somehow I feel something missing in online supervision that I don’t feel in online teaching. Also, in-person supervision can mean having a student down the hall who drops in and pesters you with the next stage of a problem on the regular, and this can be a very convenient way to get through difficult parts of a project quickly, but you can’t do this so well online. (You could, of course, just set your zoom on at 9am with your students logged in and working quietly and just use it when you need to, like a shared office – but we haven’t got there yet). So I still somehow prefer in-person supervision. However, there is one way in which I think online supervision is going to radically change the way professor/student and professor/staff relationships work, and that is its use in preventing harassment.

There are many forms of harassment in universities but one of the commonest is power harassment (pawahara in Japanese), in which a senior figure uses their power and authority to ruin the lives of students and junior staff. This is done through straightforward bullying – yelling, threats, insults and the like – as well as through things like taking authorship, demanding excessive work, refusing to share connections, giving unfair assessments, and so on. Things like sharing connections are the sorts of subtle power relations that can never be fought effectively, but the bullying aspects of power harassment take on a very different tone when all meetings need to be conducted online. I was myself bullied by a boss for years, and when I made a formal complaint against him a big problem I had was that much of his behavior – the threats to sack me, the unreasonable demands, the unfair statements about my work and personality, the threats towards my students – was verbal and not recorded, so in the formal complaint this became a case of my word against his. I won that complaint but it was a long slog and the outcome was not as good as I had hoped because the entire part of my complaint about his manners and inter-personal behavior could not be confirmed. This isn’t a problem when your relationships are done through zoom, and it will completely change the balance of power, for the following reasons.

The bully cannot get the same pleasure online: Bullies do what they do for personal pleasure and to bolster their own fragile personalities, so they need a reaction. Sure they do a lot of stuff that has no visible response – threatening emails, yelling over the phone, bitching about you to others – but none of this means anything to them if they can’t also hurt you visibly and viscerally enjoy the pleasure of watching you collapse. This pleasure is obviously going to be reduced if it’s done through a camera but worse still, on zoom you can turn off your own camera and mute yourself and they simply cannot get any pleasure from their words at all. They can try and force you to turn your camera and mic on but you are the one who controls your computer’s settings, and they cannot enjoy bullying as much. If it doesn’t make them feel better they’ll still do it – bullies are bullies after all – but they will have less personal incentive to do it and maybe, just maybe, as a result they won’t do it as much. Also, obviously, the bully cannot do the physical things bullies love – throwing small office objects, throwing paper at you, pushing you or touching you.

Bullies hate to be recorded: This is the real killer for a bully. Bullies always know how power works and are very aware of the risks of power being used against them. This is why the threats and insults are much more commonly and forcefully delivered in person, away from witnesses and not in writing. If you can record your meetings with your boss then he or she is going to have to be super careful about what he or she says, and even if the bully can stop you from recording the zoom session itself they cannot stop you putting your phone next to the speaker and hitting record. The threats to sack me always happened in unplanned ad hoc meetings where I did not have time to surreptitiously bring in my phone and hit record, and in any case it is hard to surreptitiously record people when they can see what you’re doing. But online they cannot guarantee they aren’t being recorded, and this means they will have to be careful. Furthermore, one of the responses a university might consider to bullying is to have a witness present at meetings, but the university cannot do this for ad hoc meetings, hallway interactions and the like. But zoom eliminates those meetings – all meetings need to be scheduled and can be recorded. So you can simply request during mediation to have all meetings recorded, and you already have your bully on a leash. It’s worth noting too that universities are going to be much, much more careful about dismissing bullying claims if they are aware that the recordings of the situation they determined was “not bullying” could end up going viral on twitter. I am aware for example of one famous economist who has a terrible reputation, but no one has ever recorded his rants. Good luck to him supervising online!

Witnesses: One of the great things about zoom is that you don’t know what’s going on on the other side of the computer. Even if the video is on and mute is off, a quiet witness can sit on the other side of the computer listening to the behavior of your bully, and stand as a witness in a complaint. Bullies often gaslight their victims, making sure they say derogatory things in private and then either denying them or saying that they didn’t mean it that way or that you misinterpreted their tone. They can’t get away with that if someone you trust is listening in and can tell what they really meant, and give you feedback later. This is a protection for strict or unreasonable senior staff who are not bullies, because that witness will potentially tell their subordinate that the behavior is unpleasant or unreasonable but not bullying. But for bullies this is a disaster. They can’t break your confidence in your own judgment if there are witnesses to dispute their gaslighting, and they can’t even know the witnesses are there. Also it’s much easier for a victim to strike back verbally if they have a person there offering emotional support, even silently – especially if the conversation is muted and the camera off so that the victim can consult with the witness about what to say. And of course you can have that witness occasionally drift by in the background, so that the bully suddenly discovers that the last 30 minutes of bad behavior may have been heard by an outsider.

Bullies love chaos and unstructured interactions: One thing my boss was fond of doing was barging into my office and yelling at me, or calling me into an impromptu meeting and demanding answers to things I hadn’t prepared for, or catching me after group meetings with unreasonable and unrealistic requests plus insults. Bullies love to have everyone on edge, never sure when they’re going to make demands or suddenly turn foul. Of course they can be erratic and chaotic in zoom meetings but they cannot just barge into your work and yell at you over zoom – they need to schedule appointments by email, and that means telling you what it’s about so you can prepare, or at least leaving a paper trail of failed information. Also when meetings are organized like this you can try to rustle in co-supervisors, colleagues and collaborators to diffuse the aggression – and of course you can schedule a witness to hover behind your computer.

Given these reasons I think online supervision actually takes a lot of power away from senior staff and puts it in the hands of their victims. With tele-working and home-based teaching and research becoming the new normal, I think there is a strong chance that even after the pandemic people will be able to manipulate the new normal to allow for greater amounts of online meetings and supervision, with the ability to get greater control over the environment in which bullying happens. If you are being bullied by your supervisor now, I recommend finding ways to turn the zoom meetings and lack of physical meetings into a tool to collect evidence on your mistreatment, and to gather support from partners and friends to help weather it. A couple of recorded zoom sessions with a powerful bully could transform a workplace harassment case, and especially the implied threat of viral attention will really serve to focus the minds of campus administrators on what to do about bullying senior staff. It is my hope that online supervision and telework in the new normal will revolutionize the way academics work and in particular will enable students and junior staff to better manage the misbehavior of unruly and unpleasant senior faculty.

Online conferences and virtual meetings

One thing I really hate about academia is the conference world. I think it’s a scam that was developed by a previous era of academics to enable international travel for free, and for a while it was great – people could go to exotic locations and take a break on the government’s money. But now that administrators have become aware of the scam and the grant money is getting more competitive conferences are a drag. Even very senior staff now are not allowed to fly business, are required to turn up the day of or the day before a conference and are not allowed to take time off before they fly home, and often have to present certificates of attendance or reports. I find conference attendance exhausting and distracting, and I don’t think it enhances my academic life at all. Shlepping halfway across the world to present a 5 minute presentation at a conference where 90% of the material isn’t relevant to my work, then going straight from the final day to the airport to shlepp all the way back, arriving the day after I left and having to go back to work the next day – it’s just an exhausting and tedious waste of time. The fact that it is relevant to our careers – that junior staff have to take time out from all the other stuff they’re doing to faff on the other side of the world without any pleasurable side benefits in order to pad their CV – is incredibly infuriating. And on so many occasions it is completely unproductive – if you’re not the keynote speaker at an international conference you’re likely to be presenting a 5 minute speech in a windowless room to 5 or 10 other people (3 of whom are from your work anyway) who won’t have any questions and may not even care about your work (5 of them are the other presenters!) It’s very rare that there is any significant interaction or anything productive arises from it. What a waste of time!

Online conferences, on the other hand, are great! You only have to attend the presentations that are interesting, you can do it as part of your day job, and because nobody needs to blow half their grant money on a plane ticket many more people will attend. My Chinese colleague recently attended one where she presented her work to 300 people, rather than the 10 people she would expect at a physical conference – and she did it from her bedroom! This means that way more people see your work, there is much more interaction as a result, time limits can be strictly adhered to, people without grant money or from poorer universities can attend, students can attend … it’s a huge win. I hope that in the new normal conferences will become a thing of the past, and will be recognized as the wasteful scam that they were. Let’s make all our conferences online and save physical work travel for actually meaningful trips to do real work!

Conclusion: Online teaching is great

I have been raised to think of online learning as a scam, a way for unscrupulous universities to fleece low-quality students for second rate degrees. But in the modern world of high connectivity and good quality shared work apps, I think we can move past this and begin to see a way to improve our teaching using the online tools available to us. We can make our classes more inclusive, more interactive and more engaging, and we can find new ways to teach hard topics, using the online tools available to us. We can also change the nature of workplace meetings and hopefully even begin to make real progress on eliminating bullying. And we can finally do away with the ludicrous scam of physical conferences, which will enable us to use our grant money more effectively and get our work out to a wider range of people than we have in the past. Let’s embrace this new normal and use it to make our teaching genuinely inclusive and higher quality!