Why, exactly, might mandatory offline attendance be better?

I’d ended yesterday’s post by asking two questions: why is mandatory offline attendance in classrooms a good thing, and why are offline examinations better than online ones. I’ll try and list out arguments for mandatory offline attendance in today’s post.

A quick note before we begin: I don’t think mandatory offline attendance is better. I think a hybrid system is here to stay, no matter how reluctant universities and college are about it. But it is precisely for this reason that I want to write out this post – I want to force myself to “write for the other side”. Doing so helps me understand that point of view better, and two things are likely to happen as a consequence. I can sharpen my own arguments as a consequence of understanding theirs better. Second, maybe I’ll end up modifying my views by better understanding theirs.

  • Conversations are much more likely to take place in a classroom than in an online setting. Being physically present in a classroom along with others and with the professor dramatically increases the chance that a conversation is initiated and sustained. I can personally attest to this, and I am fairly confident that most people involved in academia (students and teachers) will do so as well. To the extent that you think conversations about whatever is being taught is a good thing (and I most certainly do), offline classes are definitively better.
  • Peer pressure to attend a class, and to listen once you are in class is much higher in an offline setting.
  • A classroom is conducive to learning. Your bedroom or living room, no matter how comfortable, is not. To the extent that you think priming is a real phenomenon with tangible, measurable outcomes, offline classes are likely to be better.
  • There are positive externalities (spillovers) to attending offline classes. Serendipitous conversations in corridors with people from other classes or professors, being able to walk into a professor’s office for a chat after class, the continuation of discussions of what happened in class over a cup of chai at the canteen are all much much more likely after having attended an offline class.
  • The over-the-shoulder effect tends to be underrated by folks in favor online classes. A student peering over your shoulder at your work can in a glance offer a quick correction or tip, and it is still much easier for a professor to walk through a physical classroom to take in the level of understanding of the students. VR, AR and metaverses may well be on their way, but we aren’t quite there just yet.
  • There is a performative aspect to offline classes that is all but impossible to recreate online. Watching a physics professor teach about pendulums by climbing onto one requires a physically present, and obviously involved audience. It will not have the same impact if conducted online. And my hunch is that the class is likely to be recalled much more effectively if you were physically present in class.
  • Retention based on visual cues works better than most other memory techniques, and visual cues are much more likely in a social setting than the cozy comfort of your home. See this as an example of what I am trying to get at (and please don’t hesitate to correct me if I’m wrong!)
  • What else?