What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?


I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was: 

Tell me the differences between conducting physical classes and online classes. What are some challenges you have faced in online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you go around these challenges?

My lectures are all online in the form of pre-recorded videos. But one thing the COVID-19 pandemic did was that it forced me to shift my physical tutorials onto Zoom. I experimented a little with conducting Zoom tutorials last semester (AY2019/2020 Sem II), and I have to personally admit that it was quite a traumatising experience due to a variety of problems: (1) technical problems where students got disconnected and I had to manually add them back into the breakout room (something which I could not do if I was too busy attending to a particular breakout room; (2) students learn and complete various learning activities at vastly different speeds; and then there’s the problem where (3) students didn’t dare or didn’t want to interact with each other online, thereby resulting in getting very little done.

These three problems made a huge impact on me last semester, and I spent the entire summer break re-thinking my whole approach to conducting tutorials.

The first major revamp that I did was to change the tutorial participation grading rubric. Tutorial participation this semester is not graded based on how much you contribute to the discussion, but on how much you help your fellow group mates or seek help from your fellow group mates. From my traumatic experience of Zoom tutorials last semester, I realised that this was necessary otherwise the fast learners would complete all the learning exercises on their own and not try to engage in any discussion with their group mates. So this new grading rubric for tutorial participation would motivate them to apply their learning in the process of peer teaching. And at the same time, incentivise weaker students or struggling students to actively seek help from their group members since they can also score marks in that way.

And we require each group to record their breakout room discussion and upload it to Luminus where we would quickly review the videos after class to see who’s been helping or seeking help. The reason for recording the discussions was motivated by my undergraduate Teaching Assistants, many of whom complained that in their own experience with Zoom tutorials, their discussions groups would return to silence the moment the lecturer or tutor left the breakout room. So this was done to ensure that students would actively help or seek help from each other regardless of whether or not the tutor was present in the breakout room.

And since many local students tend to be shy in speaking up, we always begin the discussion group activities with an ice-breaker warm up, just to get them talking about their week and form a connection, a bond, with one another. This helps to warm them up enough to engage each other cordially for the rest of the discussions.

The second major revamp was to create a very detailed and structured Google Docs worksheet for every discussion group, laying out every single task that they had to do, whether it was a technical task, or an open-ended discussion about the ethics of a certain decision. This allows each group to progress in the various learning activities at their own pace without requiring the tutor to round up the entire class to brief them on the next task, which was the format we used in physical tutorials. And of course, for the fastest groups, we always have an additional question to provoke them to think further about the issue at hand. This is meant to keep them engaged throughout tutorial time, and to match their level of learning with something more challenging for them. In a certain, each discussion group gets a very customised learning experience within their breakout rooms.

This has many benefits. First, it lightens the burden of the tutor from having to brief and explain many things to the class. Each group can read the instructions on their own, and if they are unsure, they can clarify amongst themselves (which would give them marks for tutorial participation for helping each other). And only when they realise that they are still unsure, can they then seek the help of the tutor. What this does is that it allows the tutor more space to handle students with technical problems (without worrying about holding up the class), and it also gives the tutor peace of mind to attend to the weaker groups.

Furthermore, each tutorial class has its own Telegram chat group. This functions as the back channel for tutorials. In the event a student has Internet problems, the student can notify us through that group chat. And we can send the student a landline telephone number to call to connect to the Zoom server and thus join our discussions. It also allows us to send tutorial materials that students can easily check back any time during and after the tutorial. And if the tutor is in a breakout room, students from other breakout rooms can post specific questions to the tutor who will then decide whether to visit that breakout room or if it’s a simple question, answer it via text on Telegram.

These two revamps are massive, and they have been highly effective in overcoming the challenges of teaching online.

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

I was recently interviewed for receiving the NUS FASS Faculty Teaching Excellence Award for AY2019/2020. One of the interview questions was:

What is your teaching philosophy? What are some lessons you have gained as an educator?

Here’s my answer:

My teaching philosophy is influenced heavily by the teachers I had growing up. I had teachers who looked out for the last, the lost, and the least, and they put in so much effort to ensure that the weaker students would not get left behind. And I have had the personal experience of having good teachers who, with their patience, nurturing qualities, and clear explanations, allowed me to go very far in my learning. My own life would have been very different if I had did not have the fortune of encountering them.

And so in many ways, my teaching philosophy is influenced by that, and I enjoy spending time with my students to help them learn better, and to help clear up whatever confusions that they have about their learning

The most profound lessons I gained as an educator were during my time as a Teaching Assistant for interdisciplinary modules. It was shocking to see the amount of fear and anxiety students had when it came to a discipline outside their major. Their fears were fuelled by the fact that it was a discipline alien to them. But at the heart of the fears and anxieties was the fear of failure.

And it occurred to me that so many of our university students have never experienced failure before in their lives. They succeeded in every major exam by pursuing what they can score well in. And so when an alien subject — which they have no confidence or experience in — is forced upon them, suddenly, they are faced with the prospects of failure.

And time and time again, I have seen how that fear of failure kept getting in the way of their learning. I encountered many students who were reluctant to internalise their learning because they were afraid of saying or writing the wrong thing. And so there’s this tendency to stick to model answers, to replicate and modify examples. They never really gave themselves a chance to try to express what they learnt in their own words.

There are many other examples I could cite of fear getting in the way of their learning. Suffice to say, these experiences shaped my approach to teaching. That if I want students to learn well, then I need to help mitigate the single biggest impediment to their learning, which is their fear and anxiety.

This insight comes from my own personal experience in learning. Years ago, I used to have a terrible command of the Chinese language. But I needed to work in China for a couple of weeks. I could not speak well, and I could not write well either. So I signed up for adult business Chinese classes. The teacher told me that since we only had a week before I had to fly, the focus would be on empowerment and making me confident. Lessons were less about grammar and vocabulary. She was perceptive and she saw that my struggle with the language was my lack of confidence in speaking, and in some aspects, anxieties in speaking in Mandarin. I was sceptical about it, but she did a surprisingly fantastic job at building confidence in me. I survived my work trip in China, and my command of the Chinese language improved vastly since then.

This made me realise just how far students can go in their learning once the impediment of fear and anxiety are alleviated. And so I provide a variety of support systems in my teaching to help alleviate that fear, such as the Telegram Helpline where they can always seek help when they’re stuck. In addition, I engage them with humour, and other fun activities as a way of alleviating the fear of failure so that they can focus their minds on the task at hand.

I also put them through simulated scenarios in a safe environment where they can and will have to fail and learn to evaluate and recover from those simulated failures. It is my hope that through these experiences, they realise that failing isn’t as bad as it seems, and so they feel more empowered by these experiences to take risks and learn better.

What Students Have Said About GET1050 Computational Reasoning

Even though last semester ended in May, I’m still receiving many personal messages and letters from students thanking me for teaching them GET1050 Computational Reasoning. I thought it’ll be good to archive some of them here as a memento of the amazing time I had teaching the AY2019/2020 Sem II cohort. (They’re the best cohort I’ve taught thus far)

Relevance of GET1050 to Internship and Work

It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn't imagine that I'll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I'm currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it'll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I'd prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation exercises we went through in the module. I'd like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.

It has been really wonderful learning VBA from the module in particular. I couldn’t imagine that I’ll be learning programming in FASS. At least now with basic VBA skills in my belt, I hope for more useful things to come! Perhaps one thing of interest to you: I’m currently interning in the oil and gas sector. One of my tasks was to prioritize a list of
interests for the firm, which was compiled in a spreadsheet. Evidently it’ll be exhaustive to go thru each interest one by one (there was a lot). So my bosses would like me to justify how I’d prioritize it. This is similar to the optimisation
exercises we went through in the module. I’d like to believe that they allow me to have a thinking framework in place for these kinds of tasks.

Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions

Hi Jonathan! Just wanted to drop a message saying that I cannot believe I am facing people in internship that didnt even quantify their parameters and had to go through mini GET on what is best and how do we define best and what are the proxy measures we are doing. Can definitely see the application of GET again cause it felt like I was transported back into your class of discussions

Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn't too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!

Hope that you are doing well : ) Hope this isn’t too random haha but I wanted to send you an appreciation email for making GET1050 so fun and enriching! I learnt a lot from your lectures and tutorials and enjoyed them very much. They were really insightful as well! I really appreciated your encouragement during the vba consultation too. Thanks to excel I managed to get an internship this break and gained more confidence in learning other tech skills xD Thank you so much for going out of your way to help us, creating such a fun learning environment and challenging us to think. This mod was my favourite one this semester! Stay safe and take care and hope to see you around in school!!

hey prof!! how has this cb been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min, my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)

hey prof!! how has this cb (circuit breaker/lockdown) been for you? :) hope youre doing well HAHA i got my first job this vacation and my
boss gave me this huge excel data set and asked me to categorise the data and all thank God i took GET1050 be i managed to use pivot table and filter function to get the data that my boss wanted and it took me less than 5min,
my boss was so impressed HAHAH thank you prof!! hope this little news will bring you some happiness this gloomy cb :)

I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.

I was your student of your mod last sem. Just want to share a story with you haha! I did horribly for your module due to the lack of time in the school semester. I got a 8/8- even when i contributed a big portion of project works that scored decently well. As a result, i decided to prioritize other mods, neglecting VBA which was the latter portion of the module. During the CB, i decided to pick up VBA, and went through some of the notes you had and youtube. This helped me to secure a banking internship in a tough period, during the interviews, the head mentioned that she wanted someone to
automate excel, and I listed some of the examples i saw on youtube, impressing her. Fast forward 2 weeks into my internship, other than small projects, i just created a excel sheet to automate manual intranet web queries and print them(For compliance against terrorism etc, intranet will show whether company suspicious or not) for my team! Saving my teammates 30 mins-ish a day.


GET1050 is Empowering!

hi mr sim, hope you're doing well! just wanted to let you know that i've taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they're teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it's taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!

hi mr sim, hope you’re doing well! just wanted to let you know that i’ve taken up an online programming course and so many of the concepts that they’re teaching were covered in get1050! for eg i just wrote a code in c using the greedy rule to solve a question. so really thank you for the past semester in this module, it’s taught me to think about computing in a way that makes it much easier for me to write codes now!

However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.

However, I wanna let you know that the course you conducted, was really REALLY helpful for me. Acting as a bridge that guides us into the unknown, I actually FEEL REALLY EMPOWERED to take a new coding module, and refine my skills in excel. And this is really thanks to you. You gave me the room to leverage on my instinctive ability to reason and plan, to complete the complexities of the tasks of excel. For that, I am deeply grateful.

Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it's only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I'm alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn't expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I've been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)

Hi Mr Sim!!! (This is quite late) I just want to let you are an amazing prof and Thank you for doing some an amazing job in GET1050. Although it’s only my first Y1, I can say this is probably my most favourite mod because of that way you deliver the teaching materials! (And partly cuz I got a high grade in it HAHAHA) It has also sparked within me an interest of coding and I have been doing the CS50 module to widen my knowledge of coding. I’m alr building my own homepage WOW As a FASS student, I didn’t expect to have such knowledge within my academic life and I really thank you for introducing it to me and the other students! ALSOOO, I’ve been reading your Tellonym and your replies have been eye-opening and refreshing. Thanks for sharing your opinions and inspiring your students (especially FASS students)

Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven't taken intro to Philo but I would love to learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.

Beyond thanking you for the obviously tremendous amount of effort and humour that you put in this mod in order to make it bearable, enjoyable, and educational; I would like to thank you for giving me a good springboard into this world of data science and computing. After seeing the value of computing knowledge and thinking from this module, I recently took up a certified business analytics course and intend to do CS50 in due time as well. I also intend to strengthen my understanding of VBA (ps. do you have any recommendations of where I can do this other than Linkedln Learning? Philo mod recommendations also please thanks haha I haven’t taken intro to Philo but I would love to
learn how to think better) I am very proud to tell you that I got an A for this module. I had at the very start told you that I was scared of this module and prepared to SU it (and got scolded by you haha). I am hence extremely proud of not only the grade, but the effort me and my team put into this module and the learnings we got as a result; but also that I have a good grade to show you to thank you for your dedication and kindness.


GET1050 is Awesome!

Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)

Heelllo Jonathan!! Sending this a bit late but, I just wanted to say thank youuu. I personally had an amazing GET1050 learning experience the past sem! Thanks for creating such a comfortable learning environment for asking questions and putting in so much effort to make learning so enjoyable!! (PARDON this not so look-a-like drawinggg HAHA)

Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:")) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :")) Rest well!!!!

Thank YOU for all your hardwork and love you have for your students:”)) your dedication to this mod is amazing!!! :”)) Rest well!!!!

I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can't wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!

I am a student from your GET1050 course. Though this email may be a little late, given that the module ended quite some time ago, the semester has finally concluded but I wish to extend my gratitude to you for having been such a passionate professor and I have genuinely learned much from your course. I really appreciate that you explain every single concept down to the last detail with so much enthusiasm. The amount of effort you and your GET1050 TAs
is truly unimaginable, but I am very thankful for all of it! Thank you for building my foundation for EXCEL well and I can’t wait to learn more tricks and codes! : D Thank you Jonathan once again :-), take care and rest well this summer!

hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))

hi prof! I wanted to say thank you for interacting with your students and spending your time to engage us in our growth :-) hope u r doing well in this season!!! :-))

Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor

Dear Mr Sim, now that the mod is about to be over i just want to say a huge thank you to you- for your patience in coaching us, checking up on us whenever u can, and just being such a great prof. I am very lucky to have taken this mod under you, and i thank you so much for all the knowledge you have imparted to us. Ive started to be able to see proxy measures, interpretive gaps havjng to be filled in etc in my daily life as well. I hope you take good care of yourself, dont overtire yourself please! As your student, it is my pleasure and honour to call you my professor.

Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.

Next, I want to sincerely thank you for being such a genuine and hardworking educator. In my entire education career as a student, I have only met one or two teachers who were always going the extra mile in getting to know their students and preparing their lessons in a way that students will truly enjoy and learn useful things they will take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I first entered university, I thought that the lecturers , in general , would be less enthusiastic about getting to know students or even teaching the content they do, as the material they teach
would undoubtedly be repetitive on their end, and the opportunities they have to interact with students are less, considering the lecture group sizes and the number of classes they have with students. It was surprising when you went out of your way to get us email short introductions to you before our very first class, you did not have to, but you chose to do it. I honestly think that shows how much you care about your students and am touched to have an educator like you. This is just one of the many things, coupled with the crazy amount of effort you put into creating funny names in assignments and easter eggs for us to find when doing the assignments, that left me speechless. Your passion for teaching is admirable and shines through.

Thank you so much for all you've done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health

Thank you so much for all you’ve done for us, Prof. Our group and all your other students are extremely grateful to you. We all enjoyed your whacky, hilarious lectures and will remember them for years to come. See you soon, Prof. Wishing you continued good health

My Experiences in Using the Telegram Messaging App as a Teaching Tool

In this article, I wish to reflect on my experience using the messaging app, Telegram, as a teaching tool. I will begin on the motivations for adopting Telegram, and then proceed to discuss how I carried out the use of Telegram in my teaching, and my observations of how students responded to it.

In the past 3.5 years of teaching here in NUS, I have learnt through my conversations with many local students that so many students perceive barriers to various modes of consultation that are typically available to them. These obstacles revolve around fear and issues of ‘face.’

In public settings, like asking questions in class or on the online forums, students are afraid of making a fool of themselves by asking a “stupid” question in front of everyone else, or at least saying the wrong thing, and risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of everyone. In other words, they fear losing ‘face’ by asking questions in a public setting.

On that same line of thought, there is also a fear that speaking out or asking certain questions can make one stand out so much that it creates pressure on the student to maintain that expectation or risk losing ‘face.’

Three years ago, I commended a student for her excellent writing on the online forums. After class, she approached me saying how she wished I did not do that as it had “revealed her true abilities” to the rest of the class. As it is, the forums were already very stressful as she did not want to stand out from the crowd, nor did she want to embarrass herself by saying anything wrong. But now that she had been “outed” by me as having excellent writing, she now has to deal with the added stress of maintaining the same standards. In a competitive culture, many students perceive this as a bad thing, because they worry that doing so would mean having to work extra hard to maintain that reputation. Failing to meet that public expectation, would result in a huge loss of ‘face.’

And while our local students prefer to seek help in a more private setting (face-to-face consults or e-mail), there is still an obstacle that puts them off: they perceive these modes of consultations as too formal, and they feel that this apparent “formality” requires them to prepare well beforehand so that they do not waste the teacher’s time, or to say or do something that will cause them to look bad before the instructor.

This became very apparent to me two years ago when I had to tutor a module on computational thinking to FASS undergraduate students. Because the nature of the subject was so alien to these students, many of them simply did not know how to articulate their questions. The ones who asked for consultations (or e-mailed me for help) knew how to articulate their questions, or at least questions on issues they were clear about. But it was apparent to me that many students did not understand. They wanted help, but they were too afraid to ask. And when I asked what kept them from seeking consultations with me, they said that they wanted to get everything in order, that they wanted to compile a list of questions before approaching me. They thought that it would be a waste of my time and that it would be embarrassing to reveal how much they did not understand.

This was the same answer I got from many students. And because they struggled on such a fundamental level, they could not achieve the level of preparedness they wanted before they saw it fit to arrange for a consultation, or even draft an e-mail with their questions. In other words, the formality of a face-to-face consultation, or even a private e-mail was an obstacle for students to seek help even when they urgently needed it. The fear of losing ‘face’ was just too great.

To summarise: many local students feel that the act of asking questions or seeking help is an act that risks losing ‘face,’ or tarnishing their reputation before their peers or teachers.

When I was tasked to develop and teach a new compulsory module for FASS students – GET1050 “Computational Reasoning” (which was, once again, an area alien to most FASS students) – I remembered the experiences and conversations I had with my former students, many of whom felt that questioning was a terrifying act of risking one’s ‘face.’

I decided to experiment with setting up a Helpline chat group on Telegram, a popular instant messaging app that allows for the creation of large chat groups. The helpline would serve several functions: (1) it would be an informal setting and to some extent, an almost anonymous platform where students can ask questions without drawing too much embarrassment to themselves; (2) if students were afraid to post questions on the helpline, they can still reach out to me privately on Telegram; (3) since the module is a blended-learning course, Telegram was the one platform that allowed me to engage and interact with my students on a regular basis (especially for students who are not in my tutorial groups); (4) the platform is the ideal means for cultivating a safe and positive learning culture where students should not feel afraid to seek help; and (5) the instant communication allows me to converse with students so as to help those struggling to articulate their questions.

I have since used Telegram for two semesters with great success. Here, I’d like to document what I did and several observations I made:

In the first two weeks, Telegram was rather quiet. There were not many queries. That was because students were still exploring and wondering what sorts of questions they could safely ask on the platform. The first couple of questions were sent privately to me on Telegram, and I made it a point to post the Q&A to the Helpline, even though students may have felt that the question was silly, pointless, or irrelevant. Nonetheless, I did it anyway because it served two purposes: (1) it allowed me to share the knowledge as I believed that there were other students with similar questions; and (2) it was a way of educating the cohort about the kinds of questions they could ask, and I wanted them to know that they can always expect a safe environment where I would answer them without judgement.

Every few days, I would also post light-hearted remarks and other jokes, or joke around with students on the Helpline. This was my way of interacting with students and building rapport with them. After all, I don’t have the luxury of interacting with all the students in a lecture setting (all my lectures are in the form of videos online). I also made a point to involve my TAs in the chat. They would help to answer queries, and occasionally post light-hearted content. This was my way of reinforcing the idea that this is an informal setting, a safe environment where we can learn together and be silly together. That this helpline was a community of learning.

As the weeks went by, not only were there more students joining the Helpline, but there were also more students daring to ask questions publicly on the chat group. I believe the interactions that my TAs and I carried out in the first few weeks of the semester were very critical in establishing that trust in students, that they could trust us enough to ask questions without fear.

And what was most amazing, was that by the time we got to Recess Week, there was a sense that the community on the Helpline had grown and matured. There were moments where I would inform the Helpline that I’m too busy to respond to queries. Not long after, I’ll find students rising up to the occasion, and answering queries from their peers. The same happens when students ask questions very late into the night.

So not only is there an increased sense of trust and respect for all on the Helpline, but I believe that students have begun to feel safe to seek help and to help others on such a platform. That is, of course, once the culture and environment has been set right at the start, and continually maintained.

In both semesters, the feedback from students have been incredible positive about the use of Telegram. Here I’d like to conclude with an excerpt of a reflection that a student wrote that best summarises how the use of Telegram and the Helpline played a critical role role in helping students grow comfortable with seeking help:

“My main learning point is summarized by the phrase: ‘No one can push you if you don’t want to push yourself; we all grow through struggles’. Having a good attitude towards learning is important. I particularly got this takeaway because this module is by-far the most encouraging, most-interaction (during tutorial) and most interesting module I took . The instructor and my TAs from tutorial class are really encouraging and I like how they always assure us that they are very willing to help us as long as we seek help. It really motivates me to want to do well for this module since I know that I am equipped with all the resources that I need and in addition, I have approachable people that I can turn to when I need help. However this also means that it is a test of self-discipline as we take charge of our own learning progress. If I choose not to help myself, then I will not learn to the best of my ability no matter how encouraging the instructors and TAs are. This module made me realized that I cannot have excuses to justify as to why I didn’t do well for this module because I can no longer say that I find it hard to seek help/the professors are not approachable, thus a good learning attitude is important.”

The Encounter with a Great Teacher and How It Influenced My Teaching

I find it really incredible how fast time flies. One year ago, I joined the Department of Philosophy, and I had been so incredibly busy creating lecture videos, assignments, and other educational resources, that I haven’t had much time to sit and reflect on my teaching, or even document the thought processes, insights, and challenges that arose along the way. 

I want to begin by discussing one significant event that shaped the way I teach my course. And it has to do with the book project that I worked on last year, where I helped to write “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,” with Captain Ho Weng Toh (who at this moment of writing, is now 100 years young and still very much active and alive).

Captain Ho fought against the Japanese in WW2 as a bomber pilot, and later came to Singapore as the first of four pioneer pilots for the then Malayan Airways, the precursor of Singapore International Airlines (SIA). You could call him the father, or even the grandfather of SIA because he trained the first 300 local pilots for the airline. 

While writing the book, I was struck by the fact that Captain Ho still keeps in touch with his students, even though he had retired 40 years ago in 1980. To say, “keep in touch” is quite an understatement. Because Captain Ho made it a point to become almost like a family friend to his students. He doesn’t just know them, he knows every member of their family – their parents, their spouses, their children. And in turn, these students of his have been introducing Captain Ho to many of the newer pilots who joined SIA since his retirement. It’s almost as if they are one big aviation family. 

I had to interview a few of his former students for the book, and I was particularly struck by one recurring comment: “Captain Ho is a great teacher.”

I couldn’t help but to ask them: “What makes Captain Ho such a great teacher?”

The answers surprised me because they had little to do with his teaching. Instead, it was all about the mundane things that make up our daily social interactions. It was the simple acts of kindness that made a deep impact on them. 

He was a father figure to his students. He made it a point to know them beyond superficial details, and he tried to be acquainted with their families and friends. He made the new cadets feel welcome and comfortable, and always assures them that they are doing ok (as they were nervous about crashing the aircraft). He regularly invited them for meals and he treated them as respectable equals, as friends. And he always pushed them to go further in life. And with patience and kindness, he kept encouraging them to go against their own perceived limits (for both work and personal matters) until they finally accomplished it. 

I find it so incredible that simple gestures like this can form long-lasting bonds with one’s students, to the extent that these bonds have remained for 50, 60, 70 years even! And even though some of his former students have passed on before him, Captain Ho still makes it a point to catch up with their families, visiting them, or even having meals with them. It’s just so incredible.

I was very struck by all these and I counted myself lucky that I got to learn about his way of teaching while I was setting up a brand new course. I told myself that I want to emulate the greatness of this man: I want to be as great a teacher as he is, and I want to have the same kinds of friendships with my students (and their families perhaps) that endure for decades.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet such a great teacher, and he taught me to put a personal touch in my interactions with my students, even though much of the learning takes place online for my course. This is why I am so happy to invest a lot of effort in interacting with my students both online and offline.

In fact, it was learning about the importance of simple gestures and extending little acts of kindness whenever possible, and how all that made a big difference in students’ learning, that I found the courage to make myself available on instant messaging (Telegram) to 800 students each semester. I was originally quite afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume. 

It is tiring work, but I do find it incredibly rewarding knowing that I could be touching lives and making a big difference to my students’ lives through simple gestures like a text message.