Saturday, July 18, 2020

An Idea for Colleges in the Pandemic

The danger in realspace classes during the current pandemic is almost entirely to professors and staff, since students who catch Covid, unless they have some significant medical problem, have a very low chance of dying from it — as best I can tell under one in a thousand. For an adult over 65, which many professors nowadays are, the chance is much higher, perhaps two or three percent. The numbers are very uncertain because we do not know how many undiagnosed cases there are, but the relative risk is at least an order of magnitude greater, perhaps two orders of magnitude, for the older group.

That suggests a policy intermediate between realspace and VR classes — students free to interact in realspace, faculty in VR. Classes  work just as last year except that the professor has been replaced by a video screen. The class can see the professor on the screen, the professor can see the class via a video camera in the front of the classroom. It would be the same approach by which I once gave a talk in the country of Georgia from my office in San Jose. Judging by my experience, it works almost as well as a live talk.

Not all students or all teachers are the same. In an improved version of what I describe, students who are at serious risk could attend virtually, with the feed to the screen also feeding to their computer and with the option to ask questions of the professor over the internet. Teachers who are not at serious risk, such as graduate student teaching assistants, could if they wished attend in realspace, which would help for classes that involved more than verbal interaction.

The last year I taught at Santa Clara University, one of my classes consisted mostly of Saudi LLM students, including a women with whom I had some long conversations about how things worked in her country. A college is either for men or for women. A women's college not only has no male students, it has no males at all inside its walls. The only way a male professor can teach in it is over video.

If the Saudis can do it, surely we can.

One problem that remains is the risk of infected students passing the virus on to parents or, worse still, grandparents. To deal with that, isolate students for a week at the end of the school year, then test them to make sure they are not carrying the virus. Quarantine any who are. Students who have gotten the virus and recovered are free to go home for Christmas and spring break.


Unknown said...

I am not sure what the evidence on relative rates of lung damage and other long term problems created by covid infections, between different populations. But it seems like a non trivial amount of the harms of covid is tied up in long term effects, which Will be more significant for young people as they have many more years left.

SB said...

I was about to make the same point: the problem isn't just dying from COVID, but sustaining long-term kidney, lung, or brain damage from it.

Of course, we don't know how long "long-term" is, since we only have seven months' experience with this virus, but there are significant numbers of people who "recovered" months ago and are still suffering significant aftereffects.

That said, you make a good point that the risks to professors are probably greater than the risks to most college students, and the benefits to college students interacting F2F are probably greater than the benefits to professors interacting F2F.

John Schilling said...

We also don't know what "significant numbers" are, because all we're seeing are anecdotes signal-boosted by people who don't think everyone else is as afraid of COVID-19 as they "ought" to be. The shortage of quantitative data, in many cases quantitative data that would be straightforward for public health authorities to obtain and vital to making informed decisions, has been an annoying and dangerous problem from the start of this pandemic.

Well... said...

David, in your last paragraph you addressed the thing that stood out to me, but you didn't address it fully. What you wrote only works if 100% of students do not live with their parents/grandparents AND only travel in isolation between wherever they do live -- on-campus dorms, off-campus apartments, etc. -- and class. All it takes is a single student interacting once with any vulnerable person from the outside for the collective risk of asymptomatic transmission of all the students to be transferred to that vulnerable person.

Think of it this way: you know a young person (for convenience let's call him Max) who, 2 to 5 days a week, sits in a room with perhaps 40-200 other young people for 50 minutes or more. Each of those other 40-200 young people might do their best to quarantine themselves apart from sitting in that room or spending time in their dorm rooms and apartments, but they have lives: they go to grocery stores, pharmacies, the gym, maybe even work a part-time job in retail. And maybe, clandestinely, they occasionally go to parties. They are college students after all. But hey, at least their professor is never in the classroom with them!

How would you feel about Max coming over your house once a month or so to do laundry and spend the weekend?

David Friedman said...

I am assuming a college as an essentially closed community during the year, with all students living in dorm on campus. That was what my experience as an undergraduate was. Students might go off campus to have a sandwich or do a little shopping, but they didn't have to and, in my proposal, don't.

Anonymous said...

John Schilling is spot on. We see signal boosted individual anecdotes of this, but no data or event attempt at data regarding it. Considering how the mainstream narrative is that this is the worst thing ever, I think it infinitely more likely they'd be pushing it hard if it was happening a lot, so it seems a fair assumption that it happens, yes, but not often.

That being the likeliest case, know what else does this? The flu. For which no one ever suggested shutting down schools for an entire year, or shutting down society for that matter.

As Jordan said, it seems like there are many people upset that not all of us are as afraid of Covid as we *OUGHT* to be, and that bothers them.

Well... said...

I went to a smallish state school from 2005 to 2009; about 3/4 of the students commuted from off-campus, whether they had their own houses because they were adults with families, or were young people still living with their parents, or rented an apartment or house with roommates. Most of my classmates, that I knew of, had at least a part-time job (I had three). And, there were no on-campus bars. In fact it was a dry campus as far as I can recall.

If we imagine that a situation in between my experience and yours, David, is typical, that still makes "college as an essentially closed community during the year" pretty unlikely.

Joe said...

Tangentially related, but I've always been confused at students and professors love affair of being able to ask questions and discuss when all the classes I go to they almost never ask questions and discuss, only exception being keystone seminar courses (I took one such course during my 4 year bachelor's and 1 year masters)

Social desirability bias really effect what ppl say about how much they value professor and class discussion I think.

As far as I'm concerned we really only need to get to lecture to students, therefor lectures should have gone online a long time ago.

Hell, VHS tech shoulda allowed most lecturers to be replaced.