Functioning and teaching from home: some notes

It’s been 3.5 months since the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Indonesia. I decided quickly to move away from Jakarta, the epicentrum, to my hometown in Bali. I thought I could function better at home, back with my parents, instead of being cooped up in a shoebox with nobody to talk to. The university also ordered all faculty to stay at home until July, which is among the more generous policies compared to other universities. 

For the last three months, I’ve been conducting classes online with the help of Google Meet and Discord. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, as I was oddly equipped with the stuff online classes would require: an extra screen, a podcast-quality microphone, a powerful laptop, and most importantly, familiarity with the software. My other colleagues aren’t so lucky; they had to spend the first month learning how to set up their Google Classrooms. There was a lot of bickering in the department over which platform we ought to use for faculty meetings and classes. At first, Zoom won, but after revealing its security flaws and generally terrible user experience, we decided on Meet because the university already pays for G Suite.

I was initially a skeptic of online classes. I lean more towards the traditional stance: classes in the classroom, as they should be. This experience, however, has made me more open to change. It is not without frustration, though.

Let’s start off with what I definitely miss: the interaction. It just doesn’t feel the same doing a livestream of a lecture on defence policy. What are missing are the cues, those tiny gestures, such as the slightly tilted head which may indicate attentiveness or confusion; the hand shot up in the air; or the visible frustration of students trying to keep up with my pace. I could slow down or even accelerate given these subtle cues. But now, I’ve resorted to the mechanical “If you understand, please type ‘yes’ in the comments. We’ll move on if we have at least six yeses,” which just throws me off. I can’t imagine what it is like for teachers who use video lectures and I myself don’t really want to go down that path unless absolutely necessary.

There’s also the issue of internet connection and hardware, and this is where inequality rears its ugly head. There are students who don’t have access to adequate internet connection or they share a laptop with their siblings, who also need it to do schoolwork. I obviously can’t blame them for not joining classes. The pandemic has done a great job exposing great inequality in this country. 

I think perhaps one of the issues is calculating how much work should be assigned. This is where my Discord server functions, as I use it as a sort of “virtual tavern” where I gather information through the grapevine. I have an idea of what my students are doing and who is assigning more work. Based on this information, I then can calculate how many readings or quizzes I should assign. What baffles me is the fact that some of my colleagues actually assign more work. Why? Some of these students have to take care of their parents’ businesses, their siblings or family members, so why assign more work? I think this is rooted in suspicion that students won’t learn optimally unless given busywork. 

Finally, there are some things which I had to sacrifice, such as class simulations. I love teaching using simulations, but since online simulations just don’t have the same feel to it, I’ve had to substantially downgrade some aspects to better suit the situation.

On the other hand, there are some experiences which make me think this online teaching thing isn’t as bad as they say. I’ve noticed the quieter students tend to be much more active when they’re allowed to type their questions or concerns via the chat function in Meet. I’ve had students who wouldn’t raise a hand in class, but they’re there chattering about points, asking me to repeat things (which they may have missed thanks to lag), and just asking questions about the material. It’s just a much more active class! 

Another bright side is I don’t have to wear a collared shirt. I usually just teach in a T-shirt now.

Anyway, seeing that there will be no going back to the “normal” prior to the pandemic, it seems that I have to be much more creative in preparing these online classes. I’m thinking about podcasts, because I don’t do well with video.

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