RAP ON: Live Streamed or Face to Face? Comparing Efficacy

Editor’s Note:  Universities nationwide are preparing for the summer and fall terms. After a quick pivot to emergency remote teaching this spring, there is now a small window of time to prepare for the next phase of education during the pandemic. One of the most common models on the drafting table involves “Rotating Classes”.  According to this model, all face to face classes meet on the days they are scheduled to, but a portion of the class attends virtually instead of in person. Depending on the size of the classroom and the number of students enrolled, half or a third of students may attend in person while the other half attends via Zoom. While suggestions for ways to decide who attends, how long this format goes, or if it will be used for all classes is still being worked out, a big question relates to the utility of live streamed learning. While pandemic learning studies have not been published as yet, a number of past studies shed some light on this question. In this is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAPblogs, designed to share the latest pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format, Tyler Read shares results from a pertinent study- Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D.- Interim Director, Center for Teaching and Learning.

What Was Done? Can a live streamed lecture provide the same benefit as an in-person lecture? Over the course of two terms a university in Switzerland, University of Genova, set out to investigate this very question. Classes from one of the most popular majors was selected,

Business/Economics. These courses had an option for live streaming the lecture sessions in addition to the traditional in class experience. The live sessions were deemed favorable to making lecture recordings available because they are more immediate. It could take up to two days to post recorded lectures, and in the time there may have been assignments that should be completed with lecture knowledge and lectures would have to be viewed within an already tight curriculum schedule.

Only primary lectures by the primary instructor were live streamed, instruction by TA’s was not. All courses streamed were compulsory classes for the major. Each class had 90 minutes of lecture that was accessible by live stream.  The term was 13 weeks long with a one-week break.

The experiment consisted of three groups one group never received the ability to live stream, another group had the live stream available to them throughout the course and a third group had access grated only some weeks at random before the experiment started. Streaming started week three of the classes and students were notified what weeks they would be able to stream the class. The option of going to the in-person class was always available to the students.

What did they find? On average about 10% of students who had access to the streaming service actually used it.

Researchers first explored possible options for why usage of the streaming service was only at ten percent. Theories were that only certain individuals preferred the streaming to the in-class option. Another idea was that streaming was used when students were prevented from attending in class lectures, classified as bad days. The later seemed most consistent as students were twice as likely to stream on their “bad days” than on “good days”.

Students who were classified as low ability performed worse when they had access to streaming class and those classified as high ability performed better. The authors of the paper concluded that students rarely use the streaming service when they still have the ability to attend class in person. The service had small effects on class attendance, only about eight percent of students did not attend class when the streaming service was available.

What this means for us?  In this study attending class through live stream had positive effects for high performing students but negative effects for low performing students, with performance being the percentile of the student evaluated by before university grades. If and when higher education uses the streaming option to compensate for the inability to hold classes in person due to the pandemic, care need be given to the abilities of different students as this study flags students who may not benefit as much from live streaming. These results also suggest that live streaming of a lecture in a classroom may be more engaging and effective than faculty lecturing via zoom. Being in the actual classroom may provide cues that accentuate learning.


Cacault, M. P., Hildebrand, C., Laurent-Lucchetti, J.,& Pellizzari, M.(2019). Distance learning in higher education: Evidence from a randomized experiment. IZA Discussion Papers, No. 12298, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), Bonn DOI:


About the author: Tyler Read is a PhD student in the Engineering Psychology program at OSU and is currently studying perception in virtual reality. He is interested in attention, perception, and decision making. 


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