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.

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

A student asked:

I thought I had plans for the future but life got disrupted by COVID-19. What should we do if we’re unsure about our future?

Here’s my advice:

I think it helps to plan for the worst case scenario, that perhaps lockdown conditions may continue for the next 1-2 years. The shock of such lockdowns is changing the way we learn and work. And a lot of what we are doing now during this lockdown may very well continue for a long time.

Firstly, assuming that e-learning is going to be around for a lot longer than we’d like, it’s best to develop good e-learning hygiene and discipline. Form learning communities with friends and strangers for each module. At least this way, you all can work together and panic together. Because motivation is a huge problem with e-learning – isolation means you can’t see movement, and so you lose track of time. A learning community will help you to regain that motivation.

Secondly, save money and spend less on bubble tea and other non-essentials. Because waves of retrenchments will be coming soon. Your family members may be affected. Use the time now to learn and pick up a variety of skills, both technical and soft, and try developing a portfolio so that you can take on more interesting part-time jobs that can develop you professionally in the future.

Thirdly, I strongly recommend taking modules in the humanities (I’m saying this because most of my students reading this are from the social sciences, hence I’m making this point). I know people like to shit on the humanities as “useless” majors, but this is an incredibly narrow minded perspective. Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, wrote about the “Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Basically, useful knowledge is useful because it has a known purpose and use. Useless knowledge is useless because its use is yet to be known. But useless knowledge is always useful because useful knowledge will one day become useless, and some other useless knowledge will become useful.

When I was an undergrad, life science was the fad. A lot of people said that you have to study life science if you want to make money or be guaranteed a job. So a lot of my peers went to pursue life science. (By the way, computing then was seen as the dumping ground. Everyone who barely qualified for university went there.) Fast forward to now, a life science degree is seen as not very useful. The Government’s attempt at developing flourishing life science industry failed spectacularly. And now computing is the fad. The market for computing people is too oversaturated right now. And if you talk to people in senior management (or watch YouTube videos), they are saying: we need people from the humanities. Why? Because we need them to question the way tech is designed and implemented, so that we can put the human and humane back into the equation.

The humanities is a lot resilient to the rise and fall of these hiring fads. Because through the humanities, you gain important soft skills that will allow you to easily pick up any skill, even if its technical. And historically, humanities has always been the training of the elites. Because to manage and lead others – to be a boss – you must know what it means to be human, and how we humans perceive, interpret, and evaluate the people and the world around us. It means gaining insights into the ideas that drive us (philosophy); understanding the passions and desires, the ambitions and insecurities that compel people to act (literature); and the lessons of human success and failings (history), so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

People regard the humanities as “useless” because it’s so broad and unspecific, but that’s only because these people are limited in their imagination on the universal applications of a humanities training.

I believe that these three recommendations will help you gain a certain resilience and flexibility to adapt well to any situation, especially when the going gets tough.