Editor’s Picks

What Happens to Teachers When Online Students Miss a Class?

By Henry Kronk
December 07, 2019

Online tutoring—where instructors reach students via the internet, often using videoconferencing—has continued to grow in popularity. Some have begun to investigate how learners fare in this environment compared to traditional face-to-face classrooms. But fewer have looked into how teachers use and adapt to this environment. A recent academic article, however, looks into certain effects of the online environment. Specifically, the investigators wanted to see what effect student absenteeism had on online tutors. They discovered that, following a student no-show, online teachers smiled less and were, themselves, more than twice as likely to miss the next tutoring session.

“The Spillover Effects of Customer No-Shows: Field Evidence from an Online Education Platform” was released on preliminary basis on SSRN in November. Authored by Professors Hengchen Dai (UCLA) and Dennis Zhang (Washington University in St. Louis), the study was intended to add to the research on customer and employee behavior in the service industry. But its findings also bear strong implications for the fields of education and education technology, and represent a perspective that often goes overlooked. 

Theories Behind Online Students as Customers and Teachers as Employees

Let’s say a student books an appointment for a traditional in-person tutoring session, but then fails to show. Based on company policy, money has already been exchanged, and the tutor gets paid regardless of whether the student shows or not. A few widely accepted principles in the service industry suggest that this event should not affect the future mood or performance of the tutor. Some even believe that the tutor’s mood and outlook will improve because they have time to eat, rest, run errands, etc. while still getting paid. 

But Dai and Zhang also theorized that this phenomenon runs up against peoples’ innate desire to be respected and valued. They theorize, therefore, that “customer no-shows can reduce employees’ positive affect and hurt their effort provision during their next interaction with a different customer.”

In other words, a customer no-show will have negative effects on the employee’s next customer interaction.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers teamed up with a large online tutoring company that pairs Chinese students learning English with North American speakers. The company tracks both learners’ and tutors’ faces during the session to monitor efficacy. (Based on this information, we can probably guess which company this is.) 

The researchers assessed nearly 2 million tutoring sessions conducted by over 8,200 different instructors between January and May 2018. They analyzed frames of the online tutoring sessions to determine how often teachers smiled. They also looked to see if student no-shows led to teacher absenteeism.

The Results

Dai and Zhang’s hypotheses were supported by their findings. Following a student no-show, the rate of teacher absenteeism increased by 275%. In truth, teacher absenteeism is rare to begin with. Platform policy provides strong incentives to avoid missing a class, and teachers run the risk of being kicked off if they miss too many. But considering this reality along with the size of their sample, that makes the 275% increase all the more remarkable. 

Furthermore, teachers also smiled slightly less in sessions following a no-show. On average during sessions, teachers smiled during 58.79% of the video frames analyzed. After a no-show, they smiled during 57.94% of the frames. 

This effect also bled over into the student experience. If a teacher’s previous class was a no-show, the current student smile ratio decreased by 1.76% relative to that experienced by teachers with fully attended classes. 

The researchers also identified another important phenomenon: the effects of student absenteeism decrease over time. 

As Dai and Zhang write, “when the current class was scheduled half an hour later than the start of the previous class, teacher smile ratio is estimated to decrease by 0.72 percentage points due to a previous student’s no-show. When the current class was scheduled six hours later than the start of the previous class, teacher smile ratio is estimated to decrease by 0.36 percentage points due to a previous student’s no-show.”

While much research has been conducted on customer behavior and education/edtech, it’s rare that these efforts crossover. The research presented by Dai and Zhang indicates that, even in a removed online experience, the teacher-student emotional and psychological relationship hangs in a balance that can be disrupted in unexpected ways. 

Featured Image: Javier Sierra, Unsplash.