The hybrid online future

Without making any predictions about what will happen with the pandemic or when, I suspect that we are never going back to the way things were in terms of on-campus education and meetings. A lot more of university life will be hybrid online. This isn’t because hybrid online is necessarily great; I suspect that in terms of meetings, a hybrid meeting with some folks in a room and others on videoconference is the worst of two worlds. But it might be the best option that is possible — when an in-person meeting is better than a hybrid meeting, but a hybrid meeting is better than no meeting.

People get sick, at any time, and the prosocial thing to do is to stay at home and not spread the infection more than necessary. I expect, and hope, that this norm will remain, and we will have less people sick in class and at work. Students who fall ill will, reasonably, expect to be able to participate from home when they do the right thing and stay home from class. Teachers who suddenly fall ill likely expect it too. After all, it is less painful, for everyone involved, than cancelling and rescheduling.

If we are reasonable and empathetic, we will accommodate. If I’m right that hybrid meetings are, in general, slightly worse than in person meetings, the meeting quality will on average be worse — but more people will be able to participate, and that is also valuable. So it might not feel like it, but taken together, the hybrid solution might be better. The exact balance would depend on how much worse or better different meeting forms are; we probably can’t put numbers on that.

The same argument applies to online scientific conferences. I can’t imagine that the online conference experience is as useful, inspiring and conducive to networking as an in-person conference. My personal impression is that online conferences and seminars are great for watching talks, but bad for meeting people. However, online conferences are accessible to more people — those who for some reason can’t travel, can’t afford it, can’t be away from home for that long.

We might not feel excited about it, but the hybrid online future is here.