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C'est la Z

When is remote better

With my first classes of the semester coming up on Monday I thought I'd write a bit about what worked better remote than in person. When I say better I mean specifically, worked better for me given my situation. I think they worked better for the class but I can't say with any certainty given the length of the educational feedback loop and other factors.

My in person teaching situation is as follows. Last semester I taught 2 in person classes (plus one remote). Both were in computer labs. Minimal distance between the kids. Everyone had to have set assigned seats and masks had to be on at all times. As the instructor, I was allowed to remove my mask but I never would.

So, here we go.

feeling safe

Big one. Remote felt safer. It doesn't really matter if it was safer or not. This is a case of perception being reality. Since I felt less safe - particularly at the start of the year before the students were vaccinated, I can say for sure that I wasn't as effective. If the students didn't feel safe I'm sure their learning also took a hit.

For all the dings on remote teaching, we all felt safe.


In my personal opinion, my classes last semester went from what I hope were good classes to not so good lectures. Since students wore masks and don't project their voices in any case, student participation was really tough. It would turn into asking students to repeat their answers multiple times and to project louder and louder. It didn't help that windows had to be open and we're in the heard of NYC with all the associated street noise.

Now, remote participation is no great shakes. It's really easy for a student to just tune out but at least it was possible. Students could be called on or could volunteer and between the Zoom and our Zulip chat, there were far more opportunities for students to be involved.

Now, once we're safe and mask free, in class will probably be better than remote for this but for now, I can't say that it is.

Group work

Group work in person was pretty much impossible. Even though there was little distancing between the students, they had to stay in their assigned locations. On Zoom we had breakout rooms and on our Zulip, group chats. In normal times, in person would blow away remote but something reasonable on zoom and zulip was far better than nothing in person.

Working with individuals / small groups

I also couldn't really work well with individual students (or small groups if we were able to set them up). Online I could do a breakout visit or an individual or group chat. Again, something being better than nothing. The one place where in person was better is that, while it was limited, I could eaves drop on the kids - look over while they worked. It was limited because I didn't want to get too close and also for the reasons cited above but it was something. Can't do that with Zoom. Interestingly enough, Big Blue Button - an opensource Zoomalike does have an eavesdrop on breakout rooms feature as it's made for teachers but last I checked the overall platform was not quite ready for prime time.


Another big win for remote was the use of the Zulip chat. Emoji polls replicate the use of a clicker but with more power and flexibility and less overhead.

You can also give a question and have them all type a response but not hit the enter key. The can then all post at once. You can do similar things with hand signals in class but this is much more flexible and robust. Big win. .

Discussion of student work

Finally, the chat platform gave us the ability to discuss more student's work. Typically, in class you can only look at one or two student solutions for a given problem but using the chat, you can stretch out the discussion. A typical strategy is to have everyone post their initial answer/response/whatever and then over the course of time have each student comment on at least two other student posts. Yes, this has it's kinks but it's a nice way to get more students to look at more other student's work.


At the beginning of last semester, I felt that we should have at least started online - particularly with the students potentially unvaccinated. Looking back, I think it would have been better overall.

Truthfully, the ideal would have been to do remote until students were vaccinated then allow professors to mix and match as best suits their classes.

If we ever get past this and back to regular old school in person classes, sure, that beats remote for instruction overall but remote does have it's moments. On top of that, good remote can beat crippled in person and sometimes there are other good reasons for a remote option such as why I want my teacher prep program to remain online.

So, there it is. Where I think remote teaching outshone in person for me over the last year. As a college istructor I have more flexibility than a K12 teacher so can mix in remote practices that I feel work better. I'm hoping that over time those that set the K12 structure would make it similarly possible at that level.

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