Tension between Digital Distance and Physical Presence in Hybrid Teaching: Evidence from Two Natural Experiments During the COVID-19 Pandemic in a French Business School

Diego Zunino*, Francesco Castellaneta, Ludovic Dibiaggio

*Corresponding author for this work

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The advent of digitization has promised learning paradigms based on digital communication and virtual reality at the expense of physical presence. During the COVID-19 health emergency, the tension between digital distance and physical presence evolved from competing alternatives to a more nuanced coexistence. Several organizations resorted to hybrid arrangements; hybrid teaching is a notable example. In this paper, we draw from the theory of planned behavior to theorize the effect of physical presence on learning outcomes in the context of hybrid teaching. We differentiate between individual and team learning outcomes. We predict that physical presence induces competition and has a negative effect on individual learning outcomes. For team learning outcomes, we predict that physical presence induces cooper-ation and has a positive impact. We exploit two natural experiments in a French business school during the fall semester of 2020. The school’s administration allocated students to subgroups randomly for fairness reasons. This context offered a natural within-subjects exper-iment, where every student was randomly assigned to either in-person or online lectures. Students had up to 4.9% lower likelihood of correctly answering exam questions for lectures they followed in person rather than online. However, in group-work assignments, teams with one more student following in person tended to see a 3.6% increase in their team evaluation. Digital distance, therefore, constitutes a barrier to learning in a hybrid setting only when tasks are evaluated on a team basis.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere866
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)38-56
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 2024

Bibliographical note

Published online: 6. September 2023.
Alternative title: Tension between digital distance and bodily presence in hybrid teaching: evidence from two natural experiments during the COVID-19 pandemic in a French Business School.


  • Digital distance
  • Physical presence
  • COVID-19
  • Hybrid teaching
  • Learning outcomes

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